It used to be that troves of data about human behavior belonged solely to public institutions and universities. Today, however, even small social startups can rapidly amass large amounts of user data, which is raising important questions about best practices for gathering and monetizing that information. As Omar El Akkad reports in this article for The Globe and Mail, this shift has “profound commercial and social implications. Not only does this behavioral data have immense financial value, there exists no set of rules or ethical guidelines dictating what sort of experiments tech companies can and can’t run on their user bases. That leaves each company, essentially, to make the rules up as it goes along.”
This issue has come to the forefront recently with the revelation in June that Facebook had conducted a behavioral study on 700,000 of their users. Without their explicit consent or knowledge, Facebook altered the news feeds of its users to show more positive or more negative content. The purpose was to see how Facebook could alter the mood of its users. An outcry from the public ensued with some members of the U.S. government even weighing in on the ethics of the experiment. The dating site OKCupid is another example. The social site revealed that in one user experiment to test the power of suggestion it had taken people that its own algorithms had indicated were not compatible and told them that they were.
But even with the loud vocal opposition to these experiments, the public doesn’t seem to be leaving these sites en masse. And one negative repercussion to the outcry notes Jean-Baptiste Michel, a French-Mauritian researcher specializing in large data sets is that, “What’s going to happen is Facebook is not going to stop these experiments, they’re just not going to tell anybody about it.”
The non-regulation of this practice among tech companies puts them at a distinct advantage for collecting research over other universities and institutions that are bound by a number of restrictions and must gain the consent of participants. But this research is also nothing new for the tech company sector. These companies have traditionally conducted experiments on their users to gain information and tailor and improve the products they offer and to sell ads.