January 17, 2017

On the Ethics of A/B Testing

The discussion triggered by Facebook’s mood manipulation experiment has been enlightening and frustrating at the same time. An enlightening aspect is how it has exposed divergent views on a practice called A/B testing, in which a company provides two versions of its service to randomly-chosen groups of users, and then measures how the users react. A frustrating aspect has been the often-confusing arguments made about the ethics of A/B testing.

One thing that is clear is that the ethics of A/B testing are an important and interesting topic. This post is my first cut at thinking through these ethical questions. I am thinking about A/B testing in general, and not just testing done for academic research purposes. Some disclaimers: I am considering A/B testing in general rather than one specific experiment; I am considering what is ethical rather than what is legal or what is required by somebody’s IRB; I am considering how people should act rather than observing how they do act.
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Privacy Implications of Social Media Manipulation

The ethical debate about Facebook’s mood manipulation experiment has rightly focused on Facebook’s manipulation of what users saw, rather than the “pure privacy” issue of which information was collected and how it was used.

It’s tempting to conclude that because Facebook didn’t change their data collection procedures, the experiment couldn’t possibly have affected users’ privacy interests. But that reasoning is incorrect.
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Facebook's Emotional Manipulation Study: When Ethical Worlds Collide

The research community is buzzing about the ethics of Facebook’s now-famous experiment in which it manipulated the emotional content of users’ news feeds to see how that would affect users’ activity on the site. (The paper, by Adam Kramer of Facebook, Jamie Guillory of UCSF, and Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell, appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

The main dispute seems to be between people such as James Grimmelmann and Zeynep Tufecki who see this as a clear violation of research ethics; versus people such as Tal Yarkoni who see it as consistent with ordinary practices for a big online company like Facebook.

One explanation for the controversy is the large gap between the ethical standards of industry practice, versus the research community’s ethical standards for human subjects studies.
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