(NaturalNews) British officials are looking into charges that Facebook treated scores of users like lab rats during an experiment that probed their emotions.
According to The Epoch Times, the British Information Commissioner's Office has said it will seek to learn more about the conditions surrounding a two-year-old study that was carried out by two American universities in conjunction with the world's most popular social website:
The inquiry is being coordinated with authorities in Ireland, where Facebook has headquarters for its European operations, as well as with French regulators.
This is just the latest in a string of incidents that have raised questions about whether the privacy rights of Facebook's nearly 1.3 billion users are being trampled by the company's drive to dissect data and promote behavior that could help sell more online advertising.
In this particular instance, Facebook company officials permitted researchers to manipulate news and other content that appeared in the main section, or "news feed," of about 700,000 randomly selected users during one week in January 2012. The data researchers were attempting to collect evidence to prove a theory that people's moods could spread like an "emotional contagion," depending on the slant and tenor of the content they were presented.
Facebook policy sort of, kind of, allows secret research
Researchers concluded that people were more likely to put up posts that were negative about their lives after the volume of positive news and information appearing in their feeds had been purposefully reduced by the data scientists. The opposite reaction took place when the number of negative posts were reduced in people's news feeds.
According to Facebook's data use policy, the company can obtain user information for "internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement."
Indeed, as The Epoch Times noted, "reaction to the study itself provided evidence of how quickly an emotional contagion can spread online."
The research was released in June, but there was no widespread backlash until just recently, after other social media sites and essays in The New York Times and The Atlantic questioned the ethics of Facebook's experiment. As has happened many times in the past, Facebook officials are busy trying to smooth things over with the public.
'Facebook has apologized'
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, told television network NDTV in India that "we clearly communicated really badly about this and that we really regret."
She added: "Facebook has apologized and certainly we never want to do anything that upsets users."
To many users and privacy experts, the words of contrition ring hollow. Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy rights organization, pointed to Facebook job openings in which the social media company, which is based in Menlo Park, California, is on the hunt for researchers who specialize in data mining and analysis as evidence that the company still plans further mining of users' preferences and psyches.
"They are engaged in secret surveillance of its users to figure out how to make more money for their advertisers," Chester told The Epoch Times.
The company has a huge profit incentive to mine its users' data. Facebook's revenue rose 55 percent to $7.9 billion in the past year; its stock has nearly tripled in value.
While U.S. lawmakers and regulators sit idle, European officials are working to shore up data protection rules. The European Court of Justice, in June, ruled that another media giant, Google, must respond to users' requests when they seek to remove links to personal information.