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By Rachel Savage Wednesday, 02 July 2014

'Our goal was never to upset anyone' protests Facebook as UK regulator gets involved in emotions study debate

With the UK regulator investigating whether Facebook broke data protection laws, the backlash is dangerous but not deadly for the social network.

With NSA revelations still leaking out and people falling over themselves to get Google to delete embarrassing old search results, privacy and data protection are the issues du jour. So it is none too surprising that the revelation Facebook manipulated newsfeeds to test emotional reactions has caused universal outrage.

The study altered the newsfeeds of 689,000 users (one in every 2,500) in one week in 2012 and found exposure to more positive posts meant they were more likely to post positively and vice versa. The researchers didn’t ask permission, though, and people were not best pleased to learn they may have inadvertently been ‘lab rats’.

Now the Information Commissioners Office has said it is investigating whether the social network broke data protection laws. It can force organisations to change their policies and fine them up to £500,000 - small change for Facebook, but paying up would still be embarrassing.

‘We are happy to answer any questions regulators may have,’ Facebook’s Europe policy director Richard Allen said in a statement. ‘It’s clear that people were upset by this study and we take responsibility for it. We want to do better in the future.’

‘Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone,’ Adam Kramer, one of the researchers, said in a Facebook post (natch). ‘My coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused.’

The kerfuffle is undoubtedly bad PR for Facebook, but it is unlikely to stop the march of social media. Most of us are pretty reliant on it to keep in touch with friends and family, so will probably keep on feeding the beast, however begrudgingly.

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