Illegal, Immoral, and Mood-Altering

How Facebook and OkCupid Broke the Law When They Experimented on Users

A Little Unavoidable Legal Background

Federal law — primarily the so-called “Common Rule”— regulates research on people in the United States. The details are complicated, the gist simple. If you engage in “research involving human subjects,” you must have two pieces of paper before you start. You need a signed informed consent form from the person you’re experimenting on, and you need approval from an IRB (short for “institutional review board”).

The State(s) of Research Law and Ethics

You may at this point be raising an objection. I thought the Common Rule only applied to federally funded research. You’re right, it does. And I thought Facebook and OkCupid are private companies. Right again, they are. But that is hardly the end of the story.

Maryland: We have good values, good laws, and a good flag.

Facebook: We Are Above the Law

Our Facebook letter drew a response from Edward Palmieri, a Facebook Associate General Counsel for Privacy. The letter is worth a read, if only for its head-spinning cognitive dissonance. Most of the letter is a detailed description of the emotional manipulation study:

OkCupid: Ethically Rudderless

At least Facebook wrote back. OkCupid simply ignored our letter. We’ve had to settle for the next best thing. Even if OkCupid wouldn’t talk to us, its CEO, Christian Rudder, enjoys talking to the press. He was particularly voluble in an interview with On the Media’s Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt for their TLDR podcast. Goldman and Vogt were dogged interviewers. In the course of their fifteen-minute conversation, they got Rudder to discuss all of the important ethical issues—and Rudder managed to get every single one wrong.

Christian Rudder

A Culture of Contempt

OkCupid used this image to announce the blog post about experimenting on them.

Addendum (September 25)

Many people have asked whether all website A/B testing now requires informed consent and IRB review. The answer is “no,” and I should have said more about why. Better late than never.

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