Facebook to Face Formal Complaint for Manipulating Users’ Emotions

The social-media giant experimented on thousands of users without their knowledge.

This February 25, 2013 photo taken in Washington, D.C., shows the splash page for the Internet social media giant Facebook.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
July 3, 2014, 9:02 a.m.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates claim Face­book broke the law with its con­tro­ver­sial study of users’ emo­tions.

The Elec­tron­ic Pri­vacy In­form­a­tion Cen­ter plans to file a form­al com­plaint with the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion on Thursday, the group’s pres­id­ent, Marc Ro­ten­berg, told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Jeff Chester, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Di­git­al Demo­cracy, said he spoke to FTC staff about Face­book’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of users’ emo­tions and he may file his own com­plaint. 

“I think what they did was de­cept­ive,” Chester said. “Face­book has a real prob­lem act­ing re­spons­ibly — it’s so fo­cused on gen­er­at­ing ad­di­tion­al ad rev­en­ues.”

The agency did not re­spond to a re­quest to com­ment on wheth­er it plans to in­vest­ig­ate Face­book. The com­pany is already fa­cing an in­vest­ig­a­tion from the U.K. data reg­u­lat­or over the is­sue.

Face­book ac­know­ledged this week that its data sci­ent­ists con­duc­ted a massive ex­per­i­ment in Janu­ary 2012 on nearly 700,000 users without their know­ledge. For one week, the re­search­ers ma­nip­u­lated the amount of pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive con­tent in users’ News Feeds to study how they re­spon­ded. The re­search­ers found that users who saw less pos­it­ive con­tent were more likely to post neg­at­ive up­dates them­selves.

Face­book’s data-use policy now states that the com­pany may use people’s in­form­a­tion for “re­search.” But as For­bes re­port­er Kash­mir Hill noted earli­er this week, the so­cial-me­dia site up­dated its policy in May 2012 to in­clude the new term — after the re­search­ers had already con­duc­ted the con­tro­ver­sial study.

The FTC, which po­lices “un­fair” and “de­cept­ive” busi­ness prac­tices, has sued nu­mer­ous In­ter­net gi­ants in re­cent years for vi­ol­at­ing the terms of their own policies.

In fact, the agency filed a suit against Face­book in 2011 for shar­ing more in­form­a­tion than it said it would in its user policy. A vi­ol­a­tion of that set­tle­ment could ex­pose Face­book to mil­lions of dol­lars in fines. But the set­tle­ment wasn’t fi­nal­ized un­til Au­gust 2012 — after the study took place.

A Face­book spokes­wo­man said the com­pany has al­ways told users their in­form­a­tion could be used to “en­hance the ser­vices we of­fer.”

“To sug­gest we con­duc­ted any cor­por­ate re­search without per­mis­sion is com­plete fic­tion,” the spokes­wo­man said. “Com­pan­ies that want to im­prove their ser­vices use the in­form­a­tion their cus­tom­ers provide, wheth­er their pri­vacy policy uses the word ‘re­search’ or not.”

Face­book Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­ficer Sheryl Sand­berg apo­lo­gized on Wed­nes­day dur­ing a trip in In­dia, say­ing the study was “part of on­go­ing re­search com­pan­ies do to test dif­fer­ent products” and was “poorly com­mu­nic­ated.”

“We nev­er meant to up­set you,” she said, ac­cord­ing to The Wall Street Journ­al.

UP­DATE: The Elec­tron­ic Pri­vacy In­form­a­tion Cen­ter has of­fi­cially filed its com­plaint, which al­leges the ex­per­i­ment was a “de­cept­ive” trade prac­tice. The group asks the FTC to re­quire Face­book to make its News Feed al­gorithm pub­lic, among oth­er sanc­tions. “The com­pany pur­pose­fully messed with people’s minds,” the pri­vacy group writes. 

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