As data overflows online, researchers grapple with ethics

Aug 14 2014, 01:19 IST
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SummaryScholars are exhilarated by the prospect of tapping into the vast troves of personal data collected by Facebook, Google, Amazon and a host of start-ups, which they say could transform social science research.

Scholars are exhilarated by the prospect of tapping into the vast troves of personal data collected by Facebook, Google, Amazon and a host of start-ups, which they say could transform social science research.

Once forced to conduct painstaking personal interviews with subjects, scientists can now sit at a screen and instantly play with the digital experiences of millions of Internet users. It is the frontier of social science — experiments on people who may never even know they are subjects of study, let alone explicitly consent.

“This is a new era,” said Jeffrey T. Hancock, a Cornell University professor of communication and information science. “I liken it a little bit to when chemistry got the microscope.”

But the new era has brought some controversy with it. Professor Hancock was a co-author of the Facebook study in which the social network quietly manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 people to learn how the changes affected their emotions. When the research was published in June, the outrage was immediate.

Now Professor Hancock and other university and corporate researchers are grappling with how to create ethical guidelines for this kind of research. In his first interview since the Facebook study was made public, Professor Hancock said he would help develop such guidelines by leading a series of discussions among academics,

corporate researchers and government agencies like the National Science

Foundation.

“As part of moving forward on this, we’ve got to engage,” he said. “This is a giant societal conversation that needs to take place.”

Scholars from MIT and Stanford are planning panels and conferences on the topic, and several academic journals are working on special issues devoted to ethics.

Microsoft Research, a quasi-independent arm of the software company, is a prominent voice in the conversation. It hosted a panel last month on the Facebook research with Professor Hancock and is offering a software tool to scholars to help them quickly survey consumers about the ethics of a project in its early stages.

Although the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates companies on issues like privacy and fair treatment of Internet users, declined to comment specifically on the Facebook study, the broader issues touch on principles important to the agency’s chairwoman, Edith Ramirez.

“Consumers should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their data,” Ms. Ramirez said in an interview. “They don’t want to be left in the dark and they don’t want to be surprised at how it’s used.”

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