Facebook vows to improve user research practices (so we're not just guinea pigs)

New guidelines, however, are light on details

Facebook is promising to be more careful about how it conducts research on users, with a deeper review process by top managers when particular groups of people or types of content are studied on the site.

However, the company did not say whether it would include outside researchers or regulators in its review process. Facebook also did not clarify how it would determine whether a particular study is ethical. Nor did it say under which circumstances, if any, it would tell users when they are included in a study.

But an enhanced review process will take place before research can begin, said Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer at Facebook, in a Thursday blog post. Further review will take place if the work involves collaboration with someone in the academic community, he said.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for additional information.

The company has created a review panel, including subject-area researchers and employees from its engineering, research, legal, privacy and policy teams.

Education around the firm's research practices will also be incorporated into Facebook's six-week training program for new engineers.

The guidelines come after Facebook took a close look over three months at the way it does research, Schroepfer said. The framework covers both the firm's internal work and also research that might be published.

Facebook faced a backlash from users and touched off a controversy earlier this year over a study in 2012 in which it changed which posts users saw in their feeds based on emotional content to measure the effect on users' moods. Many people characterized the study as Facebook toying with or manipulating their emotions.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center lodged a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission about the research, saying that Facebook "purposefully messed with people's minds" in the "secretive and non-consensual" study on nearly 700,000 unsuspecting users.

"It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently," Schroepfer said Thursday.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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