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July 2, 2014

U.K., Ireland to Look Into Privacy Ramifications of Facebook Study

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Facebook may soon find itself in hot water in Britain and Ireland as the countries’ privacy watchdogs examine Facebook’s manipulation of users’ news feeds in the name of science.

The U.K.’s Information Commissioner, along with the Irish data protection authority, will be looking into the experiment conducted two years ago by the social network’s data scientists involving nearly 700,000 Facebook members without their knowledge. News of the study broke just this week.

“We’re aware of this issue, and will be speaking to Facebook, as well as liaising with the Irish data protection authority, to learn more about the circumstances,” a U.K. spokesman told The Register.

The experiment at issue was a bid by Facebook to determine both if positive and negative moods can be influenced by posts on the network as well as if these moods can be passed on to those who read the posts.

The scientists modified the algorithms of its unsuspecting participants, causing them to see a much lower number of either positive or negative posts than usual.

Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, who performed the research with two colleagues, said in a Facebook post the research was performed to determine the emotional impact posts have on Facebook users.

Facebook said the user policy people must agree to in order to use Facebook gave the social network the right to use member data.

According to Forbes, however, Facebook’s claims that its users gave their unwitting permission to be part of such research is simply not true. In fact, according to the publication, the clause allowing such usage was added in May 2012 — four months after the study occurred.

Facebook, in a 2012 post about the changes to its data use policy, contrasted the difference between the previous version, written in September 2011, with the new language written in red underlined text.

“For internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement,” reads the policy update from May 2012. The prior version did not reference user information being used for Facebook research projects.

According to the Register, the social media site “could be accused of a major privacy blunder for failing to seek consent from European netizens.”

Facebook signed a deal with the Irish DPA and, according to the Register, the study could well be a violation of the agreement. The Irish DPA is the regulator tasked with monitoring the social media firm’s use of member data within the European Union.

“The Office of the Data Protection in Ireland has been in contact with Facebook in relation to the privacy issues, including consent, of this research,” the agency told The Register. “We are awaiting a comprehensive response on issues raised.”

It’s safe to say this is not an issue that will go away anytime soon for Facebook, despite the statement made by the study’s author Adam Kramer.

“Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone,” Kramer said. “In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”


Jennifer Cowan is the Managing Editor for SiteProNews.