July 3, 2014 11:51:07 pm
Facebook, the definitive digital record-keeper of our lives, finds itself in hot water yet again. It’s not the umpteenth redesign of its news feed or another arbitrary change to default privacy settings. Instead, Facebook has been suffering in the name of science — and because of its tendency to treat its users like lab rats. Last week, the publication of a paper by scientists at Facebook based on a study where thousands of users’ news feeds — what they see when they first log on to the social network — were manipulated to test for “emotional contagion” led to outrage. The controversy has snowballed, and Facebook now faces a probe by British and European authorities to determine whether it violated data protection laws in the course of playing with its users’ feelings. Meanwhile, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg offered the verbal equivalent of a shrug in lieu of an apology, claiming “We never meant to upset you”. In which case, Facebook’s psychological test was probably useless.
Sandberg’s failure to unconditionally apologise for the undeniably creepy, ethically wrong and legally dubious manipulation of some 7,00,000 unwitting guinea pigs’ moods underlines Facebook’s cavalier attitude towards users. Facebook claims that users clicking a box saying they agree to its data use policy, which runs into hundreds of pages, to sign up for the service, is enough to constitute consent. But this is a legal fiction, as research involving human subjects requires informed consent, and it is unlikely that even someone who waded through Facebook’s bloated terms of service would have understood that her news feed could be tweaked just to see how she reacted to good or bad news.
If Facebook’s latest transgression feels like a betrayal, it’s because — naively, in view of its status as a corporation concerned with making profits and past record on privacy — we continue to trust it with intimate information. Perhaps we ought now to remember that Facebook is not just a repository of our experiences but also a giant research lab, and all of us potential test subjects.
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