The collection of personal data is now ubiquitous, and people are starting to pay attention. But data-collection policies have been built primarily on what we technically can do, rather than what we should do.
The gulf between can and should has led to controversies about the sharing of student data and debate about a massive emotional contagion experiment conducted on the News Feeds of close to 700,000 users on Facebook. Researchers of all stripes are scrambling to find a clear way forward in uncharted ethical territory.
Underlying the discussion has been a tangle of big, thorny questions: What policies should govern the use of online data collection, use, and manipulation by companies? Do massive online platforms like Google and Facebook, who now hold unprecedented quantities of sensitive behavioral data about people and groups, have the right to research and experiment on their users? And, if so, how and to what extent should they be permitted to do so?
While much has been written about these questions, there's also the the deeper issue of how people have been attempting to answer them. That meta-issue is fundamental to the future of data collection and its use in the years ahead.
The debate around the emotional contagion experiment, for instance, is fundamentally a debate about what metaphor should guide our thinking about what the Facebook News Feed actually is. As Jeff Hancock, a co-author of the paper based on the experiment, has recognized, “[T]here’s no stable metaphor that people hold for what the News Feed is.” Proving the point, commentators have deployed a range of conflicting metaphors to argue about whether the experiment crossed the line: the experimental manipulation has been compared to a field study, to an A/B test, to books and television programs, and even to a dime left suggestively in a public phone booth. The controlling metaphor defines the moral burden of the project: If the contagion experiment is like any other routine A/B test, then there is no foul. If the contagion experiment is more, say, like a field study, it implies a greater ethical onus on the researchers’ conduct.