Facebook is a for-profit commercial organisation. Much the same has to be said of Twitter, too, and, presumably, of every other social media and micro-blogging site on the Internet. The Internet, a manmade wonder, is, of course, a different entity as it seamlessly connects us to the marvels of the new knowledge world. All the sites on the Internet are not altruistic social organisations founded to help humanity. What many of them in the social media sphere do is help people interact socially in the virtual world.
If we accept the basic premise about the dissimilarity between the Internet and the organisations that prosper on it, we arrive at a better perspective from which to judge the issues that pop out of the likes of Facebook and Google every other day.
At the age of 44, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is a lady billionaire who has broken the glass ceiling and is a role model for women in the evolving world. But what Ms Sandberg has to say about how Facebook manipulated emotions of people in a commercial experiment, and her idea of a typical corporate apology — that Facebook communicated very badly on the emotions study — has to be taken with a large dose of salt.
It is in the lack of informed consent of over 7,00,000 users in an experiment for research involving human beings, in which users’ emotions were tweaked, that Facebook breached broadly-accepted ethical guidelines.
The study concluded that emotions are contagious and so can be manipulated. We are stepping into ethically very dangerous territory here.
It comes as no surprise that the US department of defence was associated with the project, as a funder.
Much as the National Security Agency appears to be the fount of all evil when it comes to invading privacy on the Internet, so too does the US emerge as a state which would like to dabble with experiments in human behaviour and, perhaps in the future, eugenics too.
Internet search engines and email hosts are somewhat wiser today and encrypt their mail systems. Users are, however, vulnerable to invasion of privacy on the Net. What Facebook did will not fill them with confidence.
Regulators in Ireland, where Facebook bases its European operations, and the Federal Trade Commission in the United States are likely to dig deeper into the Facebook issue since no formal permission for the research was taken or given, including from persons below 18 years of age. Given the totality of disclosures over invasion of privacy, and several other issues, in this decade, the time has come for associations like The Internet Society and the Internet Engineering Task Force, which are part of the process of regulating the Internet, to take a stand on what is permitted and what is not.