Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Update: Facebook Experiments Lacked Support in User Agreement and May Have Included Minors


I posted yesterday about the ethical and possibly legal ramifications of the already infamous emotional manipulation experiment where researchers tweaked Facebook user feeds and studied ensuing user behaviour. The post yesterday gave links to a number of useful accounts and analyses, but I did also mention my own doubt that the research, including the subsequent publication of the findings, was covered by the Facebook user agreement. Today, Kashmir Hill at Forbes reveals that this is exactly what was the case. Not only did the user agreement not include "research", however, apparently Facebook realised what this meant for the defensibility of the study and retrospectively added "research" to the agreed to activities by users after the study's data collection in January 2012. In addition, it is also revealed that the study inclusion criteria did not exclude minors, and since Facebook allow users down to the age of 13, this means that the researchers may very well have been children without their or their parents' consent.

Both of these revelations are, of course, of substantial importance for the research ethical assessment of the study. Not least is the combination rather damaging not only for Facebook and its study leader Adam Kramer, but also for the non-Facebook employed researchers Jamie Guillory and Jeffrey Hancock. This since it may be assumed that the research ethical assessment that was allegedly performed at their universities, Cornell and the University of California, rested, at least partly, on the presumption of consent being implied by the Facebook user agreement. Moreover, this point is especially sensitive because of the possible enrollment of children, as research ethics standards, regardless of area, is especially adamant on rigorous consent procedures and protection mechanisms for children, as it is for other vulnerable groups, and mandatory involvement of their parents or guardians in one way or another, especially when they are below 15 years of age. Possibly, dirt may therefore spill over also on the journal PNAS's responsible editor Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University, whose responsibility it was to ensure the ethical soundness of the article before publication.

That's ethics. But, of course, today's revelation also means that there may be basis for substantial legal complaints. Not least, since Facebook and the involved universities are based in the USA – the heaven of civil lawsuits for astronomical amounts of money – it seems far from improbable that users who where included in the study may join in a class-action suit against (primarily) Facebook and the involved universities. Whether or not there would be grounds for administrative of criminal legal action is more difficult to assess, as I lack knowledge of sufficient details of the relevant sections of US law.


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Facebook Emotional Manipulation Experiment: A Collection of Readings

I will not make a real post of my own re the already infamous experiments (initially claimed to be military funded, but that, it seems, was a hoax), where Facebook allowed behavioural researchers to manipulate the allocation of status updates in personal feeds, to study the resulting emotional communicative behaviour of users. My own brief take is that, whatever else may be said on the matter, this is definitely not covered by the user agreement I've signed when joining Facebook. For while I did agree to Facebook testing out all sort of things to improve their service, I did certainly not agree to be a subject in a scientific research experiment, the result of which is published in a scientific journal. I also think that the study may harbour some substantive both methodological and research ethical difficulties, spilling over to not only Facebook, but also the prestigeous PNAS journal's editors, who seem to have taken proof of research ethical review rather lightly... But don't take my word for it, here are four selected sources, not all echoing my views exactly, which may help you make up your mind.

The first one simply set up what the whole thing is about in broad terms, providing a few useful links. The second discusses the scientific quality of the study, which is also important from a research ethics standpoint. The third is an account by a usually brilliant bioethics and research ethics law scholar, discussing the legal ramifications of the study, as well as details regarding what has and should have happened in procedural terms. The fourth is a purely research ethical account by a trusted bioethics colleague of mine. Enjoy!

1. Meyer, R: Everything We Know About Facebook's Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment, from The Atlantic.

2. Grohol, JM: Emotional Contagion on Facebook? More Like Bad Research Methods, from PsychCentral.

3. Meyer, MN: Everything You Need to Know About Facebook’s Controversial Emotion Experiment, from Wired.

4. Hunter, D: Consent and Ethics in Facebook’s Emotional Manipulation Study, from The Conversation.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Unacceptable and Disgraceful Censorship of Delegate Internet Access to News and Social Media at the 12th World Congress of Bioethics

I'm writing this waiting in my hotel lobby for getting out to the airport to fly home from Mexico City after six days conferencing (and a bit of sightseeing) at the main international event of my central  field of speciality, the biennial World Congress of Bioethics, this time organised by the Mexican  Comisión Nacional de Bioetica, or CONBIOETICA, headed by congress president Manuel H Ruiz de Chávez. The congress tours around the world and is the official core event of the International Association of Bioethics, IAB, thus ultimately representing this global organisation for bioethics researchers (further underscored by the fact that the journal of the IAB, Bioethics, regularly publishes special issues from the congresses), albeit each congress is operated by different local organisers. This means that, to some extent, the IAB as an organisation strongly committed to academic freedom has to accept global variations in national legislation, for instance regarding communication and freedom of speech. This was most obvious when the congress was held in Beijing, China, in 2006, where there was no way of getting around the Chinese censorship of internet access, especially to social media sites. One may, of course, debate how far academic societies should make pragmatic accommodations to such conditions, if at all, but even if the conclusion is that it is to some extent OK to accept such legal restrictions, the main rule for any academic organisation worth that epitet has to be to facilitate and promote the maximum of freedom of communication, speech and expression as possible.

Which brings me to a sad and disgraceful case of the 12th World Congress of Bioethics. Mexico has no legal censorship of internet access, but the conference organisation,. for which Dr Ruiz de Chávez is responsible, provided delegates with a wifi connection that proactively and electively censored all access to news sites and social media of any sort. For most delegates, this was the only way to access the internet at all from the conference site. Only those staying at the (very expensive) conference hotel had the opportunity of buying access via the hotel's service, which did not in any way screen what sites users are using. A select few, among those myself, where "informally" by word of mouth provided access to a special, "secret" wifi meant only for the CONBIOETICA staff, that did not censor access at all. This had the direct effect of effectively radically reducing the online sharing and commenting of talks, debates etc from the congress, which in today's academic world is a standard and increasingly important part of what research is about. This in itself reduces the academic and societal value of the congress and also undermines the status of bioethics as a field of research, but the wider implications of the choice of CONBIOETICA and Dr Ruiz de Chávez go far deeper.

Reflect a bit on this fact: While the CONBIOETICA congress organisers and Dr Ruiz de Chávez made the active choice of censoring and blocking delegate internet acess, they equally actively provided themselves with an uncensored fast lane to access all that which delegates where prevented from using. This is not only totally unacceptable due to default standards of academic freedom of communication and expression in the global research community. It is furthermore deeply disgraceful, as the double standard applied by CONBIOETICA expresses a deep contempt for congress delegates' ability to handle internet access in a responsible way. Shame, shame, shame!