A few months ago, a furor erupted over the discovery that Facebook had conducted a psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 unwitting users. I think the level of disgust came less from the action itself and more from the decision by Facebook to approve such an action. After all, why would the all-knowing Facebook want to use its all-pervasive Facebook powers to alter the emotional state of its Facebook users? As a privacy rights advocate and owner of the private social media network Sgrouples, I could never personally justify such behavior to my users or even myself. Many of Europe's privacy regulators feel the same way, which is why they are currently examining Facebook for privacy law violations.
Enter Christian Rudder, president of the popular OKCupid dating site. In a fascinating blog released last month, Rudder defended Facebook as a mere pawn in the reality of Internet politics. According to Rudder, "If you use the Internet, you're the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That's how websites work." Rudder then went on to state that his site conducts experiments all the time on its user base.
I was surprised that more wasn't made about Rudder's comments. On one level, if I was using Rudder's online dating service, which I'm not, such an argument would hardly give me confidence in the proposed matches suggested to me. Although I suppose it would go a long way towards restoring my confidence that any dating challenges came from the service and not me.
Dating life aside, however, Rudder's defense calls to mind a larger issue, one that can't be ignored. Too many service provider leaders want us to blindly accept Rudder's reality. To them the Internet is less an amazing communicative device and news outlet and more a channeled filter for profit. To humbly accept Rudder's statement is at best admitting a widening gap between the technology and its original purpose and at worst, surrendering our rights without a fight.
Clearly, as polls show, people understand our privacy is at risk. But because so much goes on behind the scenes of our Internet interactions that nobody sees or hears, we fail to grasp the impact of actions by Facebook and others until a concrete violation stares us in the face, such as a hacked account or stolen credit.
Look at Google for example. When you do a search on Google, your results are personalized in ways never revealed to you, based on your search and click history, personal information, location, friends, and online habits. There is also one more algorithm at play, their calculated analysis of what search results will increase the likelihood of them monetizing your next action. You'd hardly notice however, because search results do appear. But are they the best results for you - or the best results for Google?
The impartial search engine is in fact very partial, feeding you what benefits Google more than what benefits you. Granted Google would say it does this for you. But at the end of the day, what I search for today and from where should have little impact on my search, unless that is something I request. I just want the best, unfiltered information.
A few years ago search engine provider DuckDuckGo, a privacy advocate company, did an interesting study where they had 100 people search for the same election topics on Google at the same time. Everyone of course got different results even if the users were signed out of Google. In other words, Google knew who you are without your telling them and used that information to form results.
This brings us back to Rudder's statement. Contrary to his beliefs, this is not how all websites need to work. First of all, not all websites conduct experiments on you. Sgrouples does not. DuckDuckGo does not as do many others. Secondly, by saying everyone is doing it doesn't make it right. And thirdly, condoning such behavior says more about how Rudder values his users than anything else.
Those that want to experiment can very easily ask for voluntary participation from users and follow a model similar to what the medical industry uses with real and placebo medications. But to manipulate content without notifying us makes us unwitting participants in experiments. It doesn't benefit us nor does it build a bond of trust between provider and end user.
I believe we have already and will continue to see real change in the coming years as users take back the Internet and hold service providers more accountable for their actions. As a service provider myself, I welcome such action and accountability and encourage people to gravitate towards those sites and services that hold users interests above the bottom line as opposed to a dollar sign within it.