Home Mark Warner raises issue with Facebook emotion experiments

Mark Warner raises issue with Facebook emotion experiments

facebook_logoU.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) asked privacy and consumer protection experts at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide more information on recent reports that the social network Facebook conducted an experiment involving nearly 700,000 users to study the emotional impact of manipulating information on their News Feeds.

In a letter today to the FTC, which has worked with Facebook on its privacy policies, Sen. Warner asked the agency to explore the potential ramifications of the experiment, and to consider questions about what, if any, oversight would be appropriate for behavioral studies conducted by social media platforms. Sen. Warner also asked for an opinion on whether best practices should be developed and enforced by the industry, or by the FTC.

“I come from the technology world, and I understand that social media companies are looking for ways to extract value from the information willingly provided by their huge customer base,” Sen. Warner said. “I don’t know if  Facebook’s manipulation of users’ news feeds was appropriate or not. But I think many consumers were surprised to learn they had given permission by agreeing to Facebook’s terms of service. And I think the industry could benefit from a conversation about what are the appropriate rules of the road going forward.”

Sen. Warner has been a leader in the Senate in calling for improved consumer protections in the new digital economy.  Yesterday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence included his amendment  to produce a comprehensive report of the threat from cyberattacks and cybercrime in their bipartisan cybersecurity package. Earlier this year, Sen. Warnerchaired a Senate Banking subcommittee hearing on the recent massive credit and debit card security breaches impacting major retailers like Target and Neiman Marcus and millions of American consumers. He also successfully pushed retailers to establish an information sharing platform to better coordinate with law enforcement agencies and partners in the financial services sector to more efficiently combat cybersecurity threats, in the wake of the Target data breach.

Full text of Sen. Warner’s letter is below and a PDF is available here.


July 9, 2014

The Honorable Edith Ramirez, Chairwoman

The Honorable Julie Brill, Commissioner

The Honorable Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Commissioner

The Honorable Joshua D. Wright, Commissioner

The Honorable Terrell McSweeny, Commissioner

Federal Trade Commission

600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20580


Dear Chairwoman Ramirez and Commissioners Brill, Ohlhausen, Wright, and McSweeny:

I am writing to urge the Federal Trade Commission to fully explore the potential ramifications of the behavioral experiment performed by Facebook in 2012. Recent reports indicate Facebook altered the news feeds of almost 700,000 of its users to determine whether emotions and moods might be transmitted between users. As the collection and analysis of “big data” continues to increase, and as it assumes a larger role in the business plans of Internet-based companies, it is appropriate that we consider questions about what, if any, oversight might be appropriate, and whether best practices should be developed and implemented by the industry or by the FTC. Given the FTC’s leadership in this area, including your recent data brokers report, and your previous oversight of Facebook’s privacy policies, I also would be interested to know if this 2012 experiment violated Section 5 of the FTC Act or the 2011 consent agreement with Facebook.

According to reports, it is not clear whether Facebook users were adequately informed and given an opportunity to opt-in or opt-out. I also have concerns about whether or not Facebook responsibly assessed the risks and benefits of conducting this behavioral experiment as well as the ethical guidelines, if any, that were used to protect individuals. According to Facebook, the effects of its news feed manipulation were relatively modest, with as little as one-tenth of a percent of those studied showing any observable change in behavior. However, I am concerned that the exponential growth in the universe of social media consumers could place us on a slippery slope. Future studies like this, without proper oversight or appropriate review, could have a significant impact upon a large number of consumers.

The very fact that important questions remain unanswered highlights the lack of transparency around these business practices. For example, while Facebook may not have been legally required to conduct an independent ethical review of this behavioral research, the experiment invites questions about whether procedures should be in place to govern this type of research. 

To be certain, big data has the potential to help power economic activity and growth while serving consumers in meaningful ways. Companies like Facebook may have to perform research on a broad scale in order to improve their products. However, because of the constantly evolving nature of social media, big data and the Internet, many of these issues currently fall into unchartered territory. 

I am not convinced that additional federal regulation is the answer. Public concerns may be more appropriately addressed through industry self-regulation. As the federal regulator with oversight of privacy and consumer protection policies, I would be interested in your responses to the following questions: 

  1. Does the FTC have a role to play in improving transparency, accountability and consumer trust in industry’s use of big data? 
  2. Are there better ways to educate consumers, or otherwise improve transparency, about the practices consumers agree to through their use of social media platforms? Are there incentives in place for companies to voluntarily create, or to consult with independent review boards, or to utilize other means of self-regulation before conducting studies such as this?  Additionally, are there incentives that could encourage the hiring or designation of a Chief Privacy Officers at social media companies, or to establish other credible internal review programs? 
  3. Does the FTC make any distinction between passively observing user data versus actively manipulating it? Should consumers be provided more of an explicit option to opt-in or opt-out of such studies? Additionally, is it appropriate for any research findings to be shared with participants prior to public dissemination?
  4. Does the FTC or another federal entity require any additional regulatory authority or technology in order to monitor this type of data-mining?

I believe this conversation will be useful both for industry, which will learn more about consumer expectations, and for consumers, who will benefit from a reminder about online privacy and the potential commercial uses of their personal information. I look forward to your timely response to these questions.



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