ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler said Wednesday his office will review allegations by a University of Maryland law professor that Facebook and OKCupid violated a state law by manipulating customer data as part of company research.
Gansler said his office received a letter this week from James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the Francis King
Carey School of Law at the University of Maryland, who contends the companies have violated a 2002 Maryland law that requires any research on human subjects to have informed consent of the people involved and approval by an ethical review panel.
“At this point, we’ve just gotten a letter from a professor putting allegations forward, and we’ll review those allegations and look into it and see what if anything should be done,” Gansler said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Gansler said his office wants to meet with company representatives. He said there is constant tension between new technology and what crosses the line in terms of consumer expectations and privacy issues. Gansler said the state often finds common ground quickly with companies, and he noted that Facebook has traditionally been very willing to hear concerns and has made adjustments accordingly in the past.
“They’ve already discontinued doing this, so what we’d want to do is talk to them and figure out whether or not what they did was appropriate, whether there was enough notice given to users and whether or not they intend to do something like this again in the future without violating privacy concerns and without giving the ability to opt in or opt out of the testing,” Gansler said.
OKCupid acknowledged this summer that it manipulated data to see how users of its dating service would react to one another. Facebook let researchers change 689,000 users’ news feeds to see how it would affect their moods.
Grimmelmann wrote in his letter that the companies violated the federal law known as the Common Rule, which requires informed consent and ethical review by an institutional review board for all research projects funded by 15 federal agencies. He noted that Maryland closed the gap requiring federal funding to trigger the law by passing its own law.
“Facebook and OKCupid are in blatant violation of Maryland law,” Grimmelmann wrote. “They conducted research on human participants in Maryland without informed consent or IRB approval.”
Grimmelman also noted that the Maryland law requires institutional review boards to make minutes of their meetings public. When he sought them from the two companies, Facebook refused while OKCupid failed to reply at all. He wrote that their responses “amount to admissions that they lack IRBs entirely.”
Facebook spokesman Israel Hernandez said the company is examining its internal processes, but the company contends it did not break federal or Maryland law.
“We know some people were upset by this study and we are taking a hard look at our internal processes as a result,”
Hernandez wrote in an email. “The requirements specified by the federal Common Rule and Maryland law do not apply to research conducted under these circumstances.”
OKCupid, a New York-based Internet company, did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)