Facebook toughens user-data research rules, but offers no ‘opt-out’

Reuters/Dado Ruvic
Facebook has come up with new guidelines for research on the platform, including “enhanced review process” by a special internal panel and training for online researchers. Critics say users should have been given the possibility to opt out.

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Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Schroepfer, promised in a blogpost the company is going to be more careful in hosting and conducting research.

The social network is thus responding to the June scandal, when it was revealed researchers secretly manipulated posts being seen by nearly 700,000 Facebook users in early 2012 in order to see how their emotions were affected.

The company is not going to give up on research, but says it wants “to do it in the most responsible way.

Although this subject matter was important to research, we were unprepared for the reaction the paper received when it was published and have taken to heart the comments and criticism,” Schroepfer wrote on Thursday. “It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently.

Researchers have been given “clearer guidelines” on how to carry out their study at the social network, the Facebook’s CTO says, without detailing the guidelines further.

He also says the company created an internal panel for reviewing any research idea. There will be engineering, research, legal, privacy and policy experts on the panel.

Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Schroepfer. (AFP Photo/Araya Diaz)

New Facebook engineers will be taught research practices as part of their obligatory six-week training program.

The company has been praised for its attempt to regulate research at the network, but experts would have liked to see it giving users an opportunity to refuse participation in studies.

Tightening up research practices is a step in the right direction,” president of privacy watchdog group the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg, told the New York Times. “But human subject research requires consent and independent review. It does not appear that Facebook has taken those steps.”

Others experts in the field said an external panel for reviewing the research would signal a more scientific approach and generally said social networks still had a long way to go to carry out research in appropriate way.

These admirable steps make Facebook an industry leader in conducting research responsibly,” James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland told the Wall Street Journal. “Unfortunately, Facebook is able to be an industry leader only because the industry’s standards are so low.”

Other social networks have been less apologetic about their online experiments than Facebook. The OkCupid dating network admitted in July it conducted several experiments on its users and said it was not sorry.

But guess what, everybody: if you use the internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work,” website’s co-founder Christian Rudder wrote back then.