February 19, 2017

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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Cognitive disconnect: Understanding Facebook Connect login permissions

[Nicky Robinson is an undergraduate whose Junior Independent Work project, advised by Joseph Bonneau, turned into a neat research paper. — Arvind Narayanan]

When you use the Facebook Connect [1] login system, another website may ask for permission to “post to Facebook for you.” But what does this message mean? If you click “Okay”, what can the site do to your profile?

Motivated by this confusion, we explored Facebook Connect login permissions with the twin goals of understanding what permissions websites are given when a user logs in with Facebook and whether users understand that they are authorizing those permissions. Here is a working draft of our research report.
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No Facebook, No Service?

The Idaho Statesman, my sort-of-local newspaper, just announced that it will follow the lead of the Miami Herald and no longer allow readers to post anonymous comments to online stories. Starting September 15, readers who want to make comments will have to login through Facebook. This is the second time I’ve encountered a mandatory Facebook login for users trying to gain access to a third-party service. The first time was when I tried to sign up last year for the music streaming service Spotify. (Spotify now allows users to create an account using an email address, but it didn’t always.)  I’m not a Facebook fan for reasons related to Facebook’s privacy and information practices, but that’s really neither here nor there. The question is whether I should have to be a Facebook user to access services on the Internet that have no natural or necessary connection to Facebook. I’m not talking here about giving users the option to login through Facebook if they want to share their online activities with Facebook friends. I’m talking about conditioning access to a non-Facebook service, or to some aspect of that service, on a user’s having a Facebook account. Internet users are accustomed to dealing with lots of intermediaries, from broadband providers to search engines, to get access to services and information. The Internet is all about mediated transfers of information. I get that. But this strikes me as a troubling new layer of intermediation.

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