Social networking site Facebook made headlines for a recently published study where it modified the emotional content of what appeared in people’s news feeds and studied the after-effect of that change on users. The experiment has been rightly condemned as an intrusion and a manipulation of unsuspecting users of the site. By not seeking informed consent of over 700,000 users in an experiment, Facebook breached broadly accepted ethical guidelines.
It comes as no surprise that the US department of defence was associated with the project, as a funder. Much as the NSA appears to be the fount of all evil when it comes to invading privacy on the Internet, so too does the US emerge as a state which likes to dabble with experiments in human behaviour and, perhaps in future, eugenics too. Internet search engines and email hosts are somewhat wiser today and encrypt their mail systems. But users are vulnerable to invasion of privacy on the Net. Given the totality of disclosures over encroachments into privacy, and several other issues, the time has come for associations like The Internet Society and the Internet Engineering Task Force, which are part of the process of Internet regulation, to take a stand on what is permitted.
While prying into private life is condemnable, it is also undeniable that the root of this intrusive trend lies in the tendency of individuals to treat their lives as an open book and reveal their thoughts and habits to total strangers. While most decent people see these as innocent expressions of behavioural traits and respond in kind, there will be mischievous elements, including official agencies, who will take advantage of these revelations to serve their own warped purposes. If anyone wants to live in a house with open doors and windows without curtains, then he or she cannot raise a hue and cry if people outside peek in. Desirable as privacy is, it also has to be personally protected.