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British and European data cops probe Facebook user-manipulation scandal

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Exclusive UK and Irish data watchdogs are investigating claims that Facebook failed to seek the consent of its users before allowing researchers to manipulate their emotions via newsfeed meddling.

The Register asked the office of the UK's Information Commissioner if it planned to probe Facebook following widespread criticism of its motives.

"We're aware of this issue, and will be speaking to Facebook, as well as liaising with the Irish data protection authority, to learn more about the circumstances," a spokesman told us.

It comes after Forbes claimed the Mark Zuckerberg-run website had tweaked its data usage policy four months after it allowed researchers to dig deep into the online thoughts of nearly 700,000 Facebookers to see if their emotions could be manipulated based on which posts they were served.

If these claims prove true, Facebook could be accused of a major privacy blunder for failing to seek consent from European netizens, especially in light of an agreement it struck with the Irish DPA - the regulator ultimately responsible for keeping an eye on the company's data tactics within the EU. The firm's European headquarters are in Dublin, Ireland.

However, Facebook is already attempting to dampen claims that it has screwed up, even though the man who commissioned the original study - the company's data scientist Adam Kramer - has apologised.

Facebook reiterated to El Reg:

This research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account. We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible.

A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it’s positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow. We carefully consider what research we do and have a strong internal review process. There is no unnecessary collection of people’s data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.

In response to specific claims that Facebook ignored the wishes of individuals on data consent back in 2012, when the research was conducted, we were told:

When someone signs up for Facebook, we’ve always asked permission to use their information to provide and enhance the services we offer. To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction.

Companies that want to improve their services use the information their customers provide, whether or not their privacy policy uses the word "research" or not.

The Reg was then offered a link to Facebook's current data use policy.

Meanwhile, the Irish DP regulator told us:

The Office of the Data Protection in Ireland has been in contact with Facebook in relation to the privacy issues, including consent, of this research. We are awaiting a comprehensive response on issues raised.

It doesn't end here, then. Despite Facebook's desire to kill this story - the whole thing just got a lot more interesting. ®

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