As Data Overflows Online, Researchers Grapple With Ethics

at The New York Times: “Scholars are exhilarated by the prospect of tapping into the vast troves of personal data collected by Facebook, Google, Amazon and a host of start-ups, which they say could transform social science research.

Once forced to conduct painstaking personal interviews with subjects, scientists can now sit at a screen and instantly play with the digital experiences of millions of Internet users. It is the frontier of social science — experiments on people who may never even know they are subjects of study, let alone explicitly consent.

“This is a new era,” said Jeffrey T. Hancock, a Cornell University professor of communication and information science. “I liken it a little bit to when chemistry got the microscope.”

But the new era has brought some controversy with it. Professor Hancock was a co-author of the Facebook study in which the social network quietly manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 people to learn how the changes affected their emotions. When the research was published in June, the outrage was immediate…

Such testing raises fundamental questions. What types of experiments are so intrusive that they need prior consent or prompt disclosure after the fact? How do companies make sure that customers have a clear understanding of how their personal information might be used? Who even decides what the rules should be?

Existing federal rules governing research on human subjects, intended for medical research, generally require consent from those studied unless the potential for harm is minimal. But many social science scholars say the federal rules never contemplated large-scale research on Internet users and provide inadequate guidance for it.

For Internet projects conducted by university researchers, institutional review boards can be helpful in vetting projects. However, corporate researchers like those at Facebook don’t face such formal reviews.

Sinan Aral, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management who has conducted large-scale social experiments with several tech companies, said any new rules must be carefully formulated.

“We need to understand how to think about these rules without chilling the research that has the promise of moving us miles and miles ahead of where we are today in understanding human populations,” he said. Professor Aral is planning a panel discussion on ethics at a M.I.T. conference on digital experimentation in October. (The professor also does some data analysis for The New York Times Company.)

Mary L. Gray, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and associate professor at Indiana University’s Media School, who has worked extensively on ethics in social science, said that too often, researchers conducting digital experiments work in isolation with little outside guidance.

She and others at Microsoft Research spent the last two years setting up an ethics advisory committee and training program for researchers in the company’s labs who are working with human subjects. She is now working with Professor Hancock to bring such thinking to the broader research world.

“If everyone knew the right thing to do, we would never have anyone hurt,” she said. “We really don’t have a place where we can have these conversations.”…