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Facebook Experiment Draws Complaint From Privacy Group

A digital-privacy group filed a complaint against Facebook Inc. with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, asking regulators to investigate psychological experiments on some of the social network’s users in 2012.

Facebook failed to get permission to conduct the research, which altered the number of positive and negative comments in the news feeds of about 700,000 members, according to the complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The group said the agency should impose sanctions, including requiring Facebook to disclose the software formulas that determine what users see in their feeds.

“The company purposefully messed with people’s minds,” the Washington-based group said in the complaint, which also said the company didn’t notify users their data would be shared with third-party researchers.

A study about the experiment, published June 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, rekindled concerns about Facebook’s data-privacy practices in the U.S. and beyond. Earlier this week, the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office said it will speak with Facebook and work with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, the company’s lead regulator in Europe, to learn more about the circumstances.

“When someone signs up for Facebook, we’ve always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer,” the Menlo Park, California-based company said yesterday in an e-mailed statement in response to the complaint with the FTC. “To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction. Companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether their privacy policy uses the word ‘research’ or not.”

Consent Decree

Jay Mayfield, an FTC spokesman, didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone message seeking comment.

In the complaint, the Electronic Privacy Information Center also said Facebook’s research violated a 20-year consent decree from the FTC in requiring the company to protect member privacy.

A Facebook researcher apologized on June 29 for the test that altered the number of positive and negative comments that users saw on their online feeds of articles and photos in January 2012. Disclosure of the experiment prompted some members to express outrage on Twitter about the research as a breach of privacy.

The company “communicated poorly” about the experiment, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said this week at a New Delhi event to promote her book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”

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