Facebook to be investigated by UK regulator over its controversial psychology study

Although several days have passed since Facebook revealed it’d conducted a psychological experiment involving around 700,000 of its users without their knowledge, the controversy shows no sign of going away, with a UK regulator now looking into the social networking site’s actions.

Responsible for enforcing the UK’s Data Protection Act, the Information Commissioner’s Office is reportedly planning to question Facebook about the experiment, which it conducted back in 2012. It said it would also be in touch with its counterpart in the Irish government, as Facebook’s European base is located in Dublin.

The social networking site’s director of policy in Europe, Richard Allan, insisted Facebook’s week-long experiment was carried out with the “appropriate protections,” adding that it was ready to comply with the UK regulator’s investigation.

According to the Financial Times, the Information Commissioner’s Office is keen to learn if any UK citizens were subjects in Facebook’s experiment, and wants to know what safeguards were in place when it came to ensuring subject anonymity.

If its investigation finds the social networking giant to have infringed UK law, the regulator could demand the Silicon Valley-based company change its policies and hit it with a fine of up to $850,000.

The experiment, outlined in more detail here, involved tweaking the site’s News Feed algorithms for 690,000 users, affecting the kind of posts each person was shown.

Feeding people with news stories deemed positive or negative, the company aimed to discover how content affected a user’s emotions. As you might expect, researchers discovered that users subjected to a low number of positive posts tended to be less positive in their own posts, while those fed mostly with positive posts would be more upbeat in their online behavior.

With criticism of Facebook mounting, the study’s co-author, Adam Kramer, went online over the weekend to offer more details about the study, claiming it was conducted because “we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” while at the same time apologizing for “any anxiety it caused.”

It remains to be seen whether any US regulators, such as the Federal Trade Commission, decide to launch a similar investigation to the UK’s.

[Via Financial Times / WSJ]

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