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July 3, 2014

EPIC Demands FTC Probe of Facebook Mood Study

Credit: Matt Harnack / Facebook

A privacy advocacy group has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission accusing Facebook of deceptive trade practices for conducting an experiment involving 700,000 of its members without their permission.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says Facebook has not only violated the FTC Act, which forbids deceptive trade practices, the social network has also violated user trust.

“The company purposefully messed with people’s minds,” reads the EPIC complaint. “Facebook conducted the psychological experiment with researchers at Cornell University and the University of California, San Francisco, who failed to follow standard ethical protocols for human subject research.”

It came to light earlier this week that the social network’s data scientists conducted an experiment two years ago involving nearly 700,000 Facebook members without their knowledge.

The experiment was a bid to determine both if positive and negative moods can be influenced by Facebook posts 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. According to the findings, both positive and negative emotions can act almost like an infection that can be passed on without people’s awareness.

Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, who carried out the research with two colleagues, said in a Facebook post the research was performed to determine “the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product.”

But using people as guinea pigs without their permission breaks a 2012 agreement — as well as a 2012 consent order the social media giant has with the agency, EPIC insists.

In November 2011, Facebook settled a FTC complaint in which it was accused of “unfair and deceptive” practices when it came to user privacy. An agreement was drafted that month before being finalized in August 2012 outlining the necessity of Facebook obtaining users’ consent on the use of their data.

The consent decree resulted from complaints brought by EPIC and a coalition of consumer privacy organizations in 2009 and 2010.

EPIC is asking the FTC to investigate the social network’s actions, enforce its 2012 deal with Facebook force it to make its News Feed algorithm public and “provide such other relief as the Commission finds necessary and appropriate.”



Jennifer Cowan is the Managing Editor for SiteProNews.