Law in the Internet Society
-- MathewKenneally - 18 Nov 2014


Revelations that social networking sites Facebook and OK Cupid conduct unauthorized and secret experiments has startled users. The response has focused on the immoral nature of the specific experiments. The experiments though are poignant examples of a systemic problem: that social networking has become monopolized by a small number of private businesses whose incentives are not to enable a more networked society but to generate profit by spying on and manipulating users. It demonstrates the necessity for alternatives to the current model of social networking.

In July 2014 it was revealed Facebook had altered the newsfeed of two groups of users. One group was shown positive status updates, the other negative status updates. The result was very slight changes: users who saw negative updates posted more negative material themselves and vice versa. Users were understandably indignant that Facebook had tried to make people sad.

Around the same time it was revealed OK Cupid, an online dating site, altered its algorithm to determine “matches” to describe what they considered bad matches to be good matches. The aim was to test if users would accept the website’s advice irrespective of the qualities of the prospective date.

Both companies raised similar moral defenses. Facebook apologized, but also insisted they were not trying to trigger depression in users. Rather Facebook claimed it was to disprove the theory that exposure to positive content on newsfeeds makes people depressed, and use the results to improve users’ experience. OK Cupid was more forthright, arguing without apology that they were entitled to experiment on users, in order to learn how users responded to the site to improve its functionality.

Underlying each defense is an argument that each service was merely engaging in a sophisticated form of A/B testing. This is where a site owner direct groups of users to alternative versions of the website - A and B - to determine which works more effectively. Social networking sites, like online retailers, use this method as a matter of course.

This ignores key distinctions between social networking sites and other websites. Social networking is a form of social infrastructure. For many people, participation in Facebook is perceived as necessary to maintain an active social life. Unlike a retail site, opting out is not an available choice. While there are more competitors, online dating is similar. Participation in online dating is becoming more widespread and increasingly the means by which people seek romantic and sexual partners. Also, within certain age groups and markets individual dating companies may establish a monopoly. In either instance the choice not to use social networking sites requires a person to voluntarily exclude themselves from aspects of social life.

Social networking sites, unlike online retailers or newspapers, have the power to shape our social reality. They can prompt us to contact one person over another, promote one event above another, and (potentially) impact our mood. OK Cupid is using individuals dating lives, unbeknownst to those people, to better understand the science of selling love. Further, innovations that integrate technology with visual stimuli, such as google glass, may enable social networking sites to alter what users physically see. Such glasses could display “Facebook profiles” or “dating profiles” of selected individuals within a user’s vision. The manipulation enabled by social networking is far more invasive to our social reality than mere A/B testing by a retailer.

Facebook responded to the controversy by promising new guidelines for research. This, however, fails to address the underlying problem. The process of experimenting on users is, as OK Cupid's CEO robustly argued, essential to their business model of spying an manipulation. The main source of revenue for social networking sites is users’ personal data. The data can be monetized in two ways: selling it to third parties; or targeting advertisements. Facebook has an imperative to experiment on users to increase the number of users, increase frequency of use, and improve the effectiveness of advertisements. Some online dating businesses rely only on membership fees or fees for specific services such as messages instead of selling data or advertising. However, others sell user data to third parties and rely on advertisements to support the site. Nevertheless, they have the same imperative as Facebook to better understand and manipulate their users to increase subscriptions; use of paid services; or gather personal data.

Social networking sites also have an incentive to keep these processes obscure. For the data to have integrity, the experiment needs to be controlled. The users must not “know they are in the laboratory”. Users aware of data collection or manipulation might change their patterns of use or cease using sites all together. It is not an accident these companies keep their code secret and bury privacy policies in incomprehensible terms and conditions.

The experiments by Facebook and OK Cupid should not be considered aberrations or moral failings on the part of each company. Rather these experiments are the natural consequence of the aggregation and commodification of personal data. The monetization of that data requires a company to be able to manipulate its users. The centralization of social networking in private companies and continued integration between humans and technology will only enhance the opportunity and incentive for companies to manipulate human social life for profit.

If this alarms you, than mere guidelines is not an answer. The solution is to take this power away from private corporations. Alternatives to the current model of social networking should meet the following guidelines: services should not monetize personal data without informed consent; services should guarantee not to manipulate users without informed consent; and the service is transparent, that is, the code is publicly available so users can ensure any promises regarding privacy and personal data are being kept.

Applying these guidelines, we ought make the current model of social networking redundant as a matter of urgency.


Webs Webs

r2 - 06 Jan 2015 - 19:53:16 - MathewKenneally
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM