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Academics Descend on Facebook for Event, but Research Controversy on Back Burner

Controversy Expected to be Largely Ignored at Annual Event -- Officially, at Any Rate

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The academic research community will converge on Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters today for the tenth annual Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security, but don't expect much discussion about the social network's recent research controversy to be discussed on stage.

"I think it will be a hallway conversation," said Lorrie Faith Cranor, a professor of computer science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and general chair of the event, known endearingly as SOUPs.

At issue among academics are the ethics of a study conducted by Facebook's data scientists that recently sparked a firestorm among fellow researchers. Facebook's researchers set out to gauge the impact of positive and negative posts on around 700,000 users in a study conducted in January 2012.

Essentially, the Facebook researchers decided the site's terms and conditions enabled them to conduct the experiment without notifying the people whose news feeds were altered for the study. The company's data scientists found that when shown more positive posts, people were more positive in their own subsequent posts. The same effect occurred with negative posts.

A variety of talks on privacy and data-security issues will dominate the next three days at the conference, which will be attended by privacy faculty and students in addition to software developers, user experience professionals, lawyers and policy staff, according to Ms. Cranor.

Despite the stir caused by Facebook's research, an audience with a vested interest in ethical standards for research, and the conference location at Facebook's 1 Hacker Way address, the subject will not be top of agenda there.

"Everything was planned months ago," said Ms. Cranor of the event. "I think there's been an enormous amount of discussion … causing us to reflect more generally about our policies for determining the ethics of research," she continued.

Facebook employees will attend, also, she said. The only speaker from Facebook booked is Dustin Ho, engineering manager at Facebook, who is planned to discuss social authentication, or the use of social network logins across the web.

"There actually are a lot of people at Facebook who care about [research ethics]," said Patrick Gage Kelley, assistant professor of computer science at University of New Mexico, who spoke to Ad Age yesterday while en route to the SOUPs conference.

Mr. Gage said he and his fellow academic researchers hope the Facebook study scandal "doesn't cause them to go back and hide in their shells." The company could continue conducting research for internal use -- which is common at Facebook, Google, Microsoft and countless other firms with access to lots of digital data -- and simply not make it public, he suggested.

"If Facebook had asked for consent from the people in the study, they would have gotten a lot of that consent. People would have been willing to do that," he said.

Still, Mr. Gage said he thinks traditional standards for obtaining consent may not transfer well, at least directly, to research involving data gathered on thousands of people online, which involves more subjects than most old-school studies. "I don't think that those models have scaled well for the Internet at all," he said, adding that the current standard for lab-based research requiring study participants to sign sometimes-lengthy forms is "a very traditional model and it doesn't work on the Internet."

"All of these companies are doing research" on user interactivity, he said. "If every time you visited one of these websites [you had to consent]…it would make the Internet a pain to use."

Ms. Cranor said she believes updated guidelines that apply to today's research realities should be devised.

"Regardless of what people think about this particular study…I think people feel that we need better policies for evaluating the ethics of research in general," she said.

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