All Life Is an Experiment. (Sometimes It Is a Controlled Experiment.)
28 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2015
Date Written: December 17, 2015
Last year, Facebook found a new way to irritate its users. It facilitated the now-famous “Emotion Contagion” study. To do so, Facebook altered the News Feed algorithm for a large, randomly selected sample of Facebook users. When news broke about Facebook’s surreptitious study, scholars came out in droves to denounce the practices and to recommend extending the legal requirements for Institutional Review Boards (“IRBs”) to private corporations. This Essay comes to a starkly different conclusion. Although the strong reactions to Facebook’s research are perfectly natural, they are not particularly thoughtful. In fact, they steer us toward policies that are downright anti-intellectual.
This Essay begins with a short description of the Facebook study and the hostile reaction it received from the public and from legal scholars. Parts II and III critique the criticism, finding that the moral indignation is misplaced, and that the anticipated problems are best addressed through direct regulations of risky conduct and special relationships. Part IV shows that the law regulating research is already overbroad. It obstructs research that poses little risk to its subjects or society. Part V briefly sketches a proposal to reform research policy so that it can simultaneously support the production of knowledge while protecting research subjects from harm.
Keywords: Institutional Review Boards, Emotion Contagion, Facebook, research subjects
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