Fueling more debate over a controversial experiment, Facebook acknowledged Tuesday that its official data-use policy didn't specifically list "research" among the ways that members' information might be used at the time it was conducting a study to see how some users' emotions were affected by subtle manipulation of their Facebook news feeds.
Facebook argues it had users' consent to carry out the test, based on broader language in the policy that was in effect when the data was gathered in January 2012. The company added a reference to research when it revised the policy four months later — although critics say it's doubtful many users ever read the lengthy document in any case.
Legal experts said the policy highlights a broader issue: While Internet companies are increasingly using powerful software for testing human behavior and reactions to different messages, there is a large gap between private industry standards and the stricter ethical rules imposed on academic and medical research, where scientists have long wrestled with the risk of doing harm to study subjects.
The gap is likely to be more pronounced as companies hire more data scientists — and as academic researchers collaborate with private firms — to extract valuable insights from vast stockpiles of user information, said Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who studies health law and policy.
Current industry practice "allows pretty much any use of data within a company," so long as personal identities aren't revealed, Edward Felten, director of Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, added in a blog post this week.
Facebook's methods were consistent with industry practice, he wrote, "but they were clearly inconsistent" with standards for medical or mental health research that require informed consent, review by an ethics panel and other safeguards. Companies generally don't have to meet those stricter standards unless they receive government funding or are seeking product approval from an agency such as the Food and Drug Administration.