If companies cared about our privacy they would be transparent about how they use our data

facebook_logo-300x99First GameStation threatened to harvest the souls of its customers’ though its Terms and Conditions (no really!), now it has been revealed that Facebook has been attempting to manipulate its users’ moods after gaining ‘consent’ by burying information about the project in its Terms and Conditions.

Over one week in 2012, Facebook manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed. The point of this experiment was to ascertain whether exposure to emotional posts on Facebook led to users to post similarly emotional content. The project was conducted in collaboration with Cornell University and the University of California. Katherine Sledge Moore of Illinois University claimed that this was nothing unusual “based on what we’ve agreed to by joining Facebook”.

We have long warned about the dangers to users’ privacy that lurk within the lengthy and complex Terms and Conditions of online companies. For example, one study conducted by Which? showed that Facebook’s privacy policy and general terms of use added up to 11,195 words, around the same as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Some are even longer, with Apple’s conditions for iTunes use running to 19,972 words, over 1,000 more than Macbeth. It is therefore not surprising that as a result of these lengthy T’s&C’s, 74% of people were put off reading them.

As a result of the experiment Jim Sheridan MP, who sits on the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has called for new legislation in this area, commenting that he is “very worried about the ability of Facebook and others to manipulate people’s thoughts in politics or other areas”. Clay Johnson, the co-founder of Blue State Digital which created and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign in 2008, took to Twitter to call the experiment “terrifying”.

The dislike of this kind of activity isn’t just limited to a few areas. In July 2013 Big Brother Watch commissioned a series of polls from ComRes, across 9 countries it showed that 79% of people were concerned about their privacy online and 41% said that consumers were being harmed by big companies gathering large amounts of personal data for internal use.

Facebook’s latest move is part of what seems to be an escalating trend of companies putting profits above privacy, as highlighted by our acting director when she gave evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee.

It is now more important than ever that internet users are aware that it’s not just their friends that are looking at what they share on social media sites.  A wide range of companies are developing tools to capture data and analyse it in different ways, exploiting the growing amount of information we share online. If companies want to carry out this sort of experiment, and if they truly care about the privacy of their users, they will ensure that users are fully aware of how their information is being gathered and for what purposes. Failure to do this is simply not acceptable.