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Facebook’s manipulation of user emotions may face European probes

A Facebook logo.

Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

A Facebook logo.

Facebook is facing potential investigations in Europe after it disclosed last week that it deliberately manipulated the emotional content of the news feeds by changing the posts displayed to nearly 700,000 users to see if emotions were contagious.

The company did not seek explicit permission from the affected people — roughly 1 out of every 2,500 users of the social network at the time of the experiment — and some critics have suggested that the research violated its terms of service with its customers. Facebook has said that customers gave blanket permission for research as a condition of using the service.

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In response to widespread public anger, several European data protection agencies are examining whether Facebook broke local privacy laws when it conducted the weeklong investigation in January 2012.

That includes Ireland’s Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, which regulates Facebook’s global operations outside North America because the company has its international headquarters in Dublin. The Irish regulator has sent a series of questions to Facebook related to potential privacy issues, including whether the company got consent from users for the study, according to a spokeswoman.

The Information Commissioner’s Office of Britain also said that it was looking into potential privacy breaches that may have affected the country’s residents, though a spokesman of the office said that it was too early to know whether Facebook had broken the law.

“We’re aware of this issue, and will be speaking to Facebook, as well as liaising with the Irish data protection authority, to learn more about the circumstances,” a spokesman for the British regulator said in a statement.

Neither regulator, however, has launched an official investigation into Facebook’s practices.

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In the study, Facebook changed the number of positive and negative posts that some users saw in their feeds to gauge how emotions can affect social media.

Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy in Europe, said that it was clear that people had been upset by the study.

“We want to do better in the future and are improving our process based on this feedback,” he said in a statement. “The study was done with appropriate protections for people’s information, and we are happy to answer any questions regulators may have.”

The Federal Trade Commission, the US regulator that oversees Facebook’s conduct under a 20-year consent decree, has not publicly expressed similar interest in the case, which has caused an uproar over the company’s ethics and prompted the lead researcher on the project to apologize.

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