Facebook's Data Use Policy didn't mention research at time of controversial study

It turns out that Facebook’s Data Use Policy didn’t mention “research” at the time of a controversial experiment in which data scientists tested how some users’ emotions were affected by subtle manipulation of the content of their news feeds.

Facebook still insists it had users’ permission to carry out the study, based on some general language in the policy that existed at the time the study was conducted. But the question of “informed consent” has become a key issue in a raging debate over the 2012 experiment, which aimed to test whether “emotional contagion” can spread through an online social network.

Credit for uncovering the earlier version of Facebook’s Data Use Policy goes to tech reporter Kashmir Hill, who writes a column about privacy issues for Forbes and has been reporting aggressively on the Facebook study. Hill notes that Facebook only added a mention of “research” when it revised the Data Use Policy in May 2012, four months after the controversial experiment was conducted.

Critics have already questioned how many users actually read the policy, which currently runs more than 9,000 words and has been revised several times over the years. But as the researchers reported when they announced their findings, users do have to affirm their agreement when they open an account on Facebook.

When asked to clarify how users gave informed consent to the study, a Facebook spokesman pointed to a section of the data use policy that was in effect at the time, which stated in part:

“We use the information we receive about you in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users … to make suggestions to you and other users on Facebook … Granting us this permission not only allows us to provide Facebook as it exists today, but it also allows us to provide you with innovative features and services we develop in the future that use the information we receive about you in new ways.”

That policy goes on to say:

“While you are allowing us to use the information we receive about you, you always own all of your information. Your trust is important to us, which is why we don’t share information we receive about you with others unless we have:
“received your permission;
“given you notice, such as by telling you about it in this policy; or
“removed your name or any other personally identifying information from it.”

In a statement, Facebook added:

“When someone signs up for Facebook, we’ve always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer. To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction. Companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether or not their privacy policy uses the word ‘research’ or not.”

(Photo of Facebook sign in front of Menlo Park campus by Kirstina Sangsahachart/Bay Area News Group)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (326 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.