Forced Sharing on Facebook is Not for Researchers

by on under tech-policy
1 minute read

Last week Facebook enabled a new level of preference sharing, in which the site shares information about the music you're listening to and the movies you're watching on certain services that allow you to login via Facebook. As is common, the change has a number of people concerned about privacy, since it pushes a new and unexpected set of information about people into the public. Among these concerns, the Numbers Rule Your World blog at Junk Charts has argued that Internet researchers are among the few groups that will benefit from these changes.

I have to disagree with the idea that Facebook's forced sharing is for the benefit of researchers. For starters, Facebook has never cared about appeasing researchers. They have usually been cold to the academic community, and the codes of their site (computer and legal) make it nearly impossible to gather data from the service for research.

Lets put aside Facebook's relationship with research, and instead focus on the ethics of research. Ethical researchers won't be very happy with this arrangement. It violates the research ethic of keeping information private and anonymous unless there is a compelling research interest to do otherwise. Ethical researchers wouldn't be happy with forcing the information into the public so it can be observed, since it violates the core of research ethics: respect for individuals. While there are web researchers who don't adhere to this ethic, there are many who do and apply it to their own research and the work of others. Even when data is out in the open, this ethic causes researchers to question the morality of collecting and analyzing public data without user consent, as seen in the case of Harvard's 2006 Facebook study.

If Facebook actually wants to provide data to researchers, it would do so in a way that respects the ethics of research. Provide researchers with a means to request anonymous, private data about users who have consented to this form of searching. Don't shove individuals' data into the spotlight.

Facebook, Privacy, research
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