Facebook tampering probed by UK agency

Jillian Ward San Francisco

Facebook is being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK after a study showed a psychological experiment influenced what users saw in their news feeds, raising fresh privacy concerns.

A company researcher apologised on June 29 for a test in January 2012 that altered the number of positive and negative comments that almost 700 000 users saw on their online feeds of articles and photos. Disclosure of the experiment prompted some members to express outrage on Twitter about the research as a breach of privacy. The UK data regulator’s probe was reported earlier by the Financial Times.

An ICO spokesman said on Tuesday that the agency would be speaking to Facebook and working with the Irish data protection commissioner to learn more about the circumstances. It was investigating whether the company broke data protection laws, though it was too early to tell what clauses Facebook might have infringed, the Financial Times reported.

The Irish commissioner’s office had been in contact with Facebook on privacy issues, including consent in relation to the research, and was awaiting a full company report, a spokesman for the agency said.

Facebook’s compliance with EU law is governed by Ireland because the social network’s European headquarters are in Dublin.

“It’s clear people were upset by this study and we take responsibility for it,” Richard Allan, a spokesman for Facebook in the UK, said. “We want to do better 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.”

According to a study published on June 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the number of positive and negative comments users saw on news feeds was changed in January 2012. People shown fewer positive words were found to write more negative posts, and vice versa, the trial of random Facebook users found.

The data showed that online messages influenced readers’ “experience of emotions”, and might affect offline behaviour, researchers said. – Bloomberg


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