EPIC Sues Facebook Over Privacy Concerns

On July 11, 2014, the privacy watchdog, Electronic Privacy Information Center (“EPIC”) filed a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) against Facebook. EPIC alleged that Facebook broke the law by secretly monitoring users’ emotions in response to news feeds. The complaint explains that Facebook deceived users through its psychological experiment because the users did not give prior consent to participate in the experiment and they were not aware that an experiment was taking place. EPIC stated that this could also be a violation of the guidelines for experiments involving humans. In a world where social media and online presence dominate interaction, such social experiments threaten to undermine privacy and expose the most personal information to marketing and commercial techniques.

What Was the Nature of Facebook’s Experiments?

Facebook conducted surveys to determine whether seeing positive or negative updates in news feeds impacted users’ emotions and altered their browsing tendencies. It controlled the newsfeed of nearly 700,000 members to study whether positive and negative news reports impacted online behavior. The findings from this study were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The issue underlying the EPIC complaint arose because Facebook did not warn users in their Data Use Policy that it would be using their data for research purposes. Other agencies have also threatened to take action against Facebook. The Center for Digital Democracy and regulators in the United Kingdom have stated an intent to file complaints. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office intends to address its concerns with Facebook after it reviews the study and its findings. Facebook responded to these allegations by explaining that all users consent to this type of research when they sign up. Representatives did apologize to the public for the misunderstanding.

What Are the Privacy Implications of These Experiments?

Part of the EPIC complaint also points out that the study may have violated a 2012 agreement between Facebook and the FTC. The agreement came after Facebook was caught violating users’ privacy and led to improved privacy notifications by the website. The FTC also required Facebook to gather user consent prior to gathering or releasing personal information. EPIC also alleged that Facebook violated the Institutional Review Board’s (“IRB”) standards for experiments involving humans. The IRB evaluates research proposals prior to the conduct of the study. This prior review is necessary to ensure that humans are protected in the course of experiments. Indeed, most prestigious scientific journals will only publish research that received prior approval by the IRB. In the case of the Facebook experiments, the website did not consult with the IRB prior to or during its study. Since the focus of the study was individual users, EPIC alleges that Facebook was required to apply for approval from the IRB.

Online privacy is a central concern in cyberspace. At the Law Offices of Salar Atrizadeh, we are experienced and knowledgeable in the various aspects of internet and cyber laws. You may contact us to speak with an attorney who can explain your privacy rights and how you can protect yourself in cyberspace.