Researcher Access to Social Media Data: Lessons from Clinical Trial Data Sharing

104 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2024 Last revised: 11 Apr 2024

See all articles by Christopher Morten

Christopher Morten

Columbia Law School

Gabriel Nicholas

New York University School of Law

Salome Viljoen

University of Michigan Law School; Harvard University

Date Written: February 4, 2024


For years, social media companies have sparred with lawmakers over how much independent access to platform data they should provide researchers. Sharing data with researchers allows the public to better understand the risks and harms associated with social media, including areas such as misinformation, child safety, and political polarization. Yet researcher access is controversial. Privacy advocates and companies raise the potential privacy threats of researchers using such data irresponsibly. In addition, social media companies raise concerns over trade secrecy: the data these companies hold and the algorithms powered by that data are secretive sources of competitive advantage. This Article shows that one way to navigate this difficult strait is by drawing on lessons from the successful governance program that has emerged to regulate the sharing of clinical trial data. Like social media data, clinical trial data implicates both individual privacy and trade secrecy concerns. Nonetheless, clinical trial data’s governance regime was gradually legislated, regulated, and brokered into existence, managing the interests of industry, academia, and other stakeholders. The result is a functionally successful (if yet imperfect) clinical trial data-sharing ecosystem. Part II sketches the status quo of researchers’ access to social media data and provides a novel taxonomy of the problems that arise under this regime. Part III reviews the legal structures governing how clinical trial data is shared, and traces the history of scandals, investigations, industry protest, and legislative response that gave rise to the mix of mandated sharing and experimental programs we have today. Part IV applies lessons from clinical trial data sharing to social media data and charts a strategic course forward. Two primary lessons emerge: first, law without institutions to implement the law is insufficient, and second, data access regimes must be tailored to the data they make available.

Suggested Citation

Morten, Christopher and Nicholas, Gabriel and Viljoen, Salome, Researcher Access to Social Media Data: Lessons from Clinical Trial Data Sharing (February 4, 2024). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 2024, U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 24-017, Available at SSRN: or

Christopher Morten (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th St
NEW YORK, NY 10027


Gabriel Nicholas

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY NY 10012-1099
United States

Salome Viljoen

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

Harvard University ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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