“Facebook Ethics” joins “Military Intelligence”, “Airline Food”, and “Honest Politicians”

Most Facebook subscribers understand that they’re not only users of Facebook’s services, they’re its product.

That is, Facebook isn’t really “free”; the price you pay is giving Facebook access to your personal information: who your friends are, where you go, what you do, how you’re feeling, what products you use, and so on.

What subscribers may not have realised is that Facebook’s Terms Of Service not only mean that they can mine your posts, but that they can deliberately manipulate what you see, or don’t see, to carry out psychological “research” on you.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald here, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here, Facebook has allowed third parties to deliberately censor and manipulate the news feed of hundreds of thousands of Facebook users in an attempt to influence their “happiness” and behaviour.

Surprised? According to Facebook, you shouldn’t be. As the authors say in the publication:

… it was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.

Did you realise you gave “informed consent” to be an experimental subject? That’s right – they claim you agreed that they could do this when you opened your account.

When you read your news feed, then, understand that Facebook might be deliberately withholding posts from you, to see how you react. For example, they might be showing you more happy posts, or more angry posts, to see whether that makes you more happy or angry. In fact, they might be manipulating your news feed in all sorts of ways, without telling you. So if you thought your friends seemed unusually happy, or cranky, think again. Perhaps your friends haven’t changed, perhaps Facebook is using you as a guinea pig in a social experiment.

What’s more, they don’t have to tell you, either before or afterwards, that your feed has been deliberately manipulated, and your own behaviour monitored as part of an experiment.

Does that make you happy?

You might not have realised that this was one of the prices you were going to pay for your “free” account. You might also have thought that Facebook’s interest in you was confined to passive observation, not active interference in your news feed.

Think again.

The price of your Facebook account is to be a permanent experimental subject, without ever knowing either what the experiment is, or when it’s happening. The information you thought you were sharing with your friends may be deliberately withheld from their news feed, and their posts may be withheld, based on what’s in the post. Did you think that Fred seemed very unhappy recently? Perhaps he isn’t – perhaps Facebook is deliberately only showing you his unhappy posts. Perhaps they want to see how you’ll respond to Fred’s apparent unhappiness.

Does that make you happy?

Facebook thinks this behaviour is ok, because it claims you agreed to it.

Whether or not that’s the case – and I can’t comment on the legality of the Terms Of Use – I find the idea of secretly manipulating people’s conversations repugnant. Without conducting an extensive survey, I can’t say what the “average” Facebook user’s reaction would be, but my expectation is that most people would be surprised or even upset by this.

The fundamental reason for Facebook – a social network – is that you share information with friends. Nobody mentioned censorship or manipulation of that information.

While most users understand that their value to Facebook is in the information they post, I suspect most users assume that Facebook isn’t going to interfere with the posted information and the advertised purpose of the network. But they do.

Whether it’s legal or not, I think it’s unethical.

This latest revelation joins the long list of questionable practices by Facebook, which have been mostly about privacy up until now. To a Facebook subscriber they seem to set their boundaries of acceptable behaviour based purely on the public outcry it causes. It’s hard to see any corporate ethical framework, beyond “let’s see if we can do this”. Whether it’s covered by the Terms Of Service or not, I think using your subscribers as permanent experimental subjects in secret psychological experiments is just not ethical.

In discussions with friends (not necessarily using Facebook), an argument that’s often advanced is “it’s a free service, so you shouldn’t complain”. Another version of it is “You don’t have to use it, so if they offend you, just leave”.

I think both these arguments are flawed.

Firstly, Facebook is only “free” in the sense that no money changes hands; at least, from you to Faceboook. Plenty of money goes to Facebook from advertisers. However Facebook is not a charity, so they must be getting some value from your subscription, and it’s pretty obvious what that value is – it’s information about you and your friends. That’s not nothing. It has a value, and so Facebook is operating a barter system, rather than a money-based system. You agree to let Facebook use that information, and they agree to operate a service that’s useful to you.

So really Facebook is no different to a telephone service. You pay for that as well, only the telephone company charges you in dollars, rather than in information. However in both cases there is a service provided in return for your payment, and it’s covered by Terms Of Service. The big difference is in your expectations of what’s reasonable. In the case of the telephone company, you’d be outraged if they arbitrarily censored calls, or monitored your conversations to see whether you were happy or sad, or mentioned certain products. But because Facebook is “free”, apparently that’s ok. However, whether it’s acceptable or not, it is still covered by the Terms Of Service.

The question is – and, not being a lawyer, I don’t know the answer – whether the usual machinery of Trade Practices and Consumer Protection applies to the Facebook contract in the same way as it does to the telephone contract (or any other paid service). When you enter into a paid service contract, you gain a number of statutory rights that cannot be waived or varied by the service provider. In fact, in some cases it’s illegal for them to claim that they can vary those rights (“No refunds” being a frequent example). When you pay money, you automatically get a range of protections. What’s not clear to me is whether the Facebook contract is subject to the same protections, because no money has changed hands.

Certainly the argument “it’s free, so you can’t complain” is obviously based on the expectation that those protections don’t exist, however I would argue that they should, because it’s not really free – you are providing a consideration for the service. I’d welcome comments from any lawyers on this…

However, the question is still whether Facebook’s Terms Of Service are reasonable. Nobody would sign up with a phone company that promised to behave like Facebook. Is it ok for Facebook to do that, whether you sign or not?

The second argument “you don’t have to use it” is more complex, but I think reduces to the same issue. That is, if a service provider behaves in a way that we, as a society, find unacceptable, should the market intervene, or should the law? The market argument goes “well, if people are prepared to put up with it, then it’s ok, and if they’re not then they’ll go out of business” . The social argument goes “there are minimum standards of behaviour that all companies must adhere to, and for overall social good, we will enforce those standards by law”. The existence of cooling-off periods for door-to-door sales, statutory warranties, and a number of other legally enforced “minimum standards” demonstrates that this is an acceptable idea in our society. Pure market forces do not always result in socially acceptable outcomes – after all, we’re a society, not a marketplace.

In the case of the “you don’t have to use it” argument, my response is: No, I don’t; however, when I signed up it was on the basis of an advertised service, and now it turns out that they used deceptive advertising, or are indulging in trade practices that are socially unacceptable and hence illegal. On that basis, I want them to stop doing those things, rather than my having to stop using the service. By analogy, how would you react if every time the phone company (or a bank, or an airline) indulged in offensive behaviour, and people just said “well, you don’t have to use them, just stop using them or change suppliers”. This is not only inconvenient, in some cases there is a small pool of suppliers and they may all behave the same way.

So, no, I don’t have to use Facebook if I find their practices unethical and counter to the purpose they advertise for the service. Today, though, that’s rather like saying “you don’t have to own a telephone if you don’t like the phone company”. I’d rather fix the phone company’s behaviour than throw away my phone. Perhaps the market will respond, and alternatives will emerge. Whatever the outcome, it’s interesting how different our response is to Facebook’s behaviour, and the phone company’s behaviour.

Let me know when your phone company tells you you’ve been an unpaid experimental subject in secret experiments that changed which phone calls you receive, and they’re monitoring how happy your calls are, and that they’ll keep doing it without asking you because you agreed to it when you signed the contract. You might be interested in joining this social network…