May 30, 2015

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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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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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“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Since the historic snow storm, “Nemo,” deposited a NOAA-certified 40 inches of snow on my hometown of Hamden, CT, I have been watching from afar to see how the town and its citizens are using a combination of digital technology, the traditional telecommunications network, and mass media to communicate in the aftermath of the storm. While I have been lucky enough not to have been directly affected by the historic storm, my senior citizen parents have been inside their house waiting for a snow plow to come for approximately five days. Since they are healthy and have food and heat, I have the luxury of writing about the use of communications technology by Hamden’s government during this weather emergency. The purpose of this post is not to pile onto an already overwhelmed town government, but to highlight fairly easily achievable improvements that Hamden’s government could make in its emergency communications that will make residents of the town safer the next time an emergency occurs.

On Friday morning, I woke up and heard the Mayor of Hamden, Scott Jackson, on CNN stating about the storm, “It’s a Disaster.” I was impressed to hear the Mayor of my approximately 60,000 person hometown with a national and international forum to talk about the weather emergency and recovery efforts. I figured this was only the first step in the process of informing town residents about what they could expect over the next few days. However, based on reviewing “The Town of Hamden, Connecticut” Facebook page, e-mails sent from the Mayor’s Office, the Mayor’s Twitter feed, and having conversations with my parents, there are three specific areas where the town could have communicated more effectively during this weather emergency. These failures of communication sell short the heroic work of the people working around the clock to plow the streets and respond to emergencies.
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Facebook Copyright Statement: Not Entirely Silly

There’s a meme going around on Facebook, saying that you should post a certain legal incantation on your Facebook wall, to reclaim certain rights that Facebook would otherwise be taking from you. There’s an interesting counter-meme in the press now, saying that all of this is pointless and of course you can’t change your rights just by posting a statement on a website. Both memes have something to teach us about perceptions of rights and responsibilities online.
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Get Out the Vote, Cee-Lo Style?

This semester, Ed Felten and I are teaching a Freshman Seminar called “Facebook: The Social Impact of Social Networks.” This week, the class is discussing a recent article published in the journal Nature, entitled “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization“. The study reveals that if Facebook shows you a list of your closest friends who have voted, you are more likely to do so yourself. It is a fascinating read both because it is probably the first very-large-scale controlled test of social influence via online social networks, and because it appears that without much work the company was able to spur about 340,000 extra people to vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

I confess that last night I watched some of the wildly popular reality TV competition The Voice. What can I say? The pyrotechnics were more calming than the amped-up CNN spin-zoners. It was the first day that the at-home audience began voting for their favorites. Carson Daly mentioned that the show would take the requisite break on Election Night, but return in force on Wednesday. (Incidentally, I can’t decide whether or not this video urging us to “vote Team Cee-Lo” is too clever by half).
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Zuckerberg Goes to Russia as the Global Network Initiative Turns 4

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) was founded in October 2008 to help technology firms navigate the political implications of their success. Engineers at the world’s leading technology firms have been incredibly innovative, but do not always the global dynamics of their innovation. Moreover, they do not always acknowledge the ways in which politicians get involved with the design process. The creation of the GNI signaled that some in the technology sector were ready to start having more open conversations. Facebook recently joined the GNI–now four years old–as an “observer”. But the company’s founder Mark Zuckerberg also traveled to Moscow to meet with that country’s tech-savvy second-in-command, Dmitri Medvedev. With the anniversary of the GNI in mind, let’s consider the different ways of interpreting the Zuckerberg-Medvedev summit.

Zuckerberg Meets MedvedevNixon Meets Mao

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Introducing Myself: Technology, Society, and Public Policy

I’m a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton this year. My first months here have already been amazing. I’m pleased to be joining this blog as well!

My conceptual toolkit and my method comes mostly from sociology, but I’m also a former computer programmer. That means that I feel welcome in a place where policy people and computer scientists collaborate. My interests revolve around how technology and society interact, and I’ve been enjoying having these conversations with many new people. I research a variety of topics concerning the social impacts of technology — things like social interaction, collective action, and privacy & publicity. I’m also enjoying teaching a course this Fall at the Woodrow Wilson School called “New Media and Social Movements: New Tools for an Old Game” (syllabus here – PDF).
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