When Companies Study Their Customers: The Changing Face of Science, Research, and Ethics

Thursday, December 4, 2014, 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM
@ University of Colorado Law School, Room 101

Tech Policy Lab

Hosted by the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship and the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington

Companies produce and sell, and academics study and research. This tidy line, which has probably never accurately described reality, has been revealed to be illusory by the recent crush of news about the ways in which profit-seeking companies today research and study their customers constantly. Whether to improve their products and services or to advance the pursuit of knowledge (or both, or something in between), we have been introduced to many important research studies emanating not from Academia but instead from Silicon Valley: Netflix and Amazon know that if you like this, you'll also like that; OK Cupid investigates the dynamics of human dating and attraction; Target knows if you're pregnant and when you're due; and Facebook studies the way human emotion spreads.

This last study, the Facebook "emotion contagion study," led to a firestorm of online commentary when it was revealed in June 2014. The outpouring of blog posts, newspaper articles, and tweets raised dozens of fascinating questions that demand answers, so as an experiment of our own, on Thursday, December 4, 2014, the Silicon Flatirons Center will assemble some of the many astute and interesting commenters from that episode, together with other thought leaders from the academy, industry, civil society, and the legal community, to talk about the changing face of science, research, and ethics.

The first panel will debate whether we should be alarmed by the type of human social science currently taking place on online services. Call it A/B testing, product development, marketing studies, or human subject studies, companies now routinely manipulate what we see, hear, think, and feel. But companies have been doing this for years, for example in advertising, so is this a new fear? Is this treating people as lab rats, giving consumers what they want, or something else? Is it justified by the way this research improves services, often precisely in the way consumers want?

The second panel will focus on the changing nature of science and research, particularly focused on the public versus private divide. How does the data a company can access about human behavior differ from what non-affiliated researchers can access, and is this a new phenomenon? What is happening to the academic traditions of peer review and public release of research? Do the best social science Ph.D graduates feel more of a pull from corporate work over academic work, and does that matter? Isn't the world better off knowing what types of research are being conducted within corporations?

The third and fourth panels will discuss how to ensure the ethics of human subjects research going forward, with the third focusing on the substance and the fourth on the procedures and institutions of research. The third panel will consider whether "informed consent" is a viable concept in the Big Data age. Can Terms of Service ever qualify as informed consent? What about the so-called "Fair Information Practice Principles"? Do they protect against the kind of harms the second panel debated?

The fourth panel will look at the institutions for ethical review, with a particular focus on the history and current status of institutional review boards, or IRBs. Should corporations set up consumer review boards or institutional review boards, as some have proposed? Are there incentives to push companies to shore up their standards of ethical review? What role does law play? What role does law enforcement play?

Welcome and Opening Remarks
9:00am - 9:15am
  • Ryan Calo
    Assistant Professor of Law
    University of Washington
  • Paul Ohm
    Associate Professor of Law
    Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
    University of Colorado
Panel One: A/B Testing and Manipulation Online: Should We Care?
9:15am - 10:45am
  • Paul Ohm
    Associate Professor of Law
    Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
    University of Colorado
  • Zeynep Tufekci
    Assistant Professor, iSchool and Department of Sociology
    University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
    Faculty Associate, Berkman Center for Internet and Society
    Harvard University
  • Tal Yarkoni
    Research Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
    University of Texas
  • Matthew Boeckman
    Vice President: DevOps
  • Kashmir Hill
    Senior Editor
  • Rob Sherman
    Deputy Chief Privacy Officer
10:45am - 11:00am
Panel Two: The Changing Nature of Science and Research: The Public and Private Divide
11:00am - 12:30pm
  • Meg Ambrose
    Assistant Professor, Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT)
    Georgetown University
  • Edward Felten
    Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer
    White House
    Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs
    Princeton University (on leave)
  • Aaron Burstein
    Attorney Advisor
    Federal Trade Commission
  • Chris Calabrese
    Senior Policy Director
    Center for Democracy & Technology
  • Jill Dupre
    Associate Director of ATLAS
    University of Colorado
12:30pm - 1:30pm
Panel Three: Ethical Standards for Human Subjects Research
1:30pm - 3:00pm
  • Harry Surden
    Associate Professor of Law
    University of Colorado
  • James Grimmelmann
    Professor of Law
    University of Maryland
  • Michelle Meyer
    Assistant Professor and Director of Bioethics Policy
    Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
  • Claire Dunne
    IRB Program Director
    University of Colorado
  • Janice Tsai
    Global Privacy Manager
    Microsoft Research
3:00pm - 3:15pm
Fireside Chat
3:15pm - 3:40pm
  • Paul Ohm
    Associate Professor of Law
    Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
    University of Colorado
Panel Four: Institutions for Ensuring and Policing Ethical Standards
3:40pm - 5:00pm
Moderator Presenter
  • Omer Tene
    Vice President of Research and Education
    International Association of Privacy Professionals
5:00pm - 6:00pm