Facebook and OkCupid’s Experiments Were Illegal

You may remember Facebook’s experiment with emotionally manipulating its users by manipulating their News Feeds. And OkCupid’s experiment with lying to users about their compatibility with each other. And the withering criticism directed at both companies. (I maintain an archive of news and commentary related to the studies.)

At the time, my colleague Leslie Meltzer Henry and I wrote letters to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to the federal Office for Human Research Protections, and to the Federal Trade Commission. Our letters detailed the serious ethical problems with the Facebook study: Facebook obtained neither the informed consent of participants nor approval from an IRB.

Today, we’re back, because what Facebook and OkCupid did was illegal as well as unethical. Maryland’s research ethics law makes informed consent and IRB review mandatory for all research on people, even when carried out by private companies. As we explain in a letter to Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler Facebook and OkCupid broke Maryland law by conducting experiments on users without informed consent or IRB review. We ask Attorney General Gansler to use his powers to compel the companies to stop experimenting on users until they come into compliance with the Common Rule.

Another provision of the Maryland law requires all IRBs to make their minutes available for public inspection. In July, Leslie and I wrote to Facebook and to OkCupid requesting to see their IRBs’ minutes, as is our right under the law. Facebook responded by conceding that it conducts “research” on its users, but refused to accept that it had any obligations under the law. OkCupid never responded at all. Since complying with a request for IRB minutes would be straightforward at any institution with an IRB, the most natural interpretation is that neither of them has an IRB—an open-and-shut violation of the law.

I have written an essay on Medium—”Illegal, Immoral, and Mood-Altering“—discussing in more detail the Maryland law and Facebook and OkCupid’s badly deficient responses to it. I hope you will read it, along with our letter to Attorney General Gansler, and join us in calling on him to hold these companies to account for their unethical and illegal treatment of users.