A U.S. senator has joined the call for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook’s controversial research into users’ emotions.
Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia sent a letter to the FTC this week, following last week’s complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center on the same topic. EPIC alleges that Facebook may have violated the terms of an earlier FTC consent decree by undertaking the experiment, in which Facebook altered the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users for a week, without their knowledge, to test their emotional reactions.
Warner doesn’t make specific allegations in his letter to the FTC. But the senator, who has positioned himself as a champion of “consumer protections in the new digital economy,” said it’s not clear if Facebook users were adequately informed about the experiment. He wants the FTC to examine whether it has a role to play in setting rules for future research. In a statement, he added:
“I understand that social media companies are looking for ways to extract value from the information willingly provided by their huge customer base … I don’t know if Facebook’s manipulation of users’ news feeds was appropriate or not. But I think many consumers were surprised to learn they had given permission by agreeing to Facebook’s terms of service. And I think the industry could benefit from a conversation about what are the appropriate rules of the road going forward.”
As we’ve reported before, Facebook has maintained that the study was part of its normal research process for testing and developing new products. The company has apologized for upsetting its users, although it hasn’t really conceded any flaws or lapses in the study itself. In its latest statement, however, the company sounded more contrite. A spokesperson told the Financial Times:
“It’s clear that people were upset by this study and we take responsibility for it. We want to do better in the future and are improving our process based on this feedback. The study was done with appropriate protections for people’s information and we are happy to answer any questions regulators may have.”