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

Tags: Entrepreneurship / Technology Policy

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
  • Paul Ohm
    Associate Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
  • Ryan Calo
    Lane Powell and D. Wayne Gittinger Associate Professor, University of Washington School of Law
Panel One: A/B Testing and Manipulation Online: Should We Care?
  • Paul Ohm — Moderator
    Associate Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
  • Tal Yarkoni — Presenter
    Research Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Texas
  • Zeynep Tufekci — Presenter
    Assistant Professor, iSchool and Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
  • Kashmir Hill — Commenter
    Senior Editor, Fusion
  • Rob Sherman — Commenter
    Deputy Chief Privacy Officer, Facebook
  • Matthew Boeckman — Commenter
    Vice President: DevOps, Craftsy

Panel Two: The Changing Nature of Science and Research: The Public and Private Divide
  • Meg Ambrose — Moderator
    Assistant Professor, Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT), Georgetown University
  • Edward Felten — Presenter
    Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer, White House
  • Chris Calabrese — Commenter
    Senior Policy Director, Center for Democracy & Technology
  • Jill Dupré — Commenter
    Associate Director, ATLAS Institute, CU Boulder
  • Aaron Burstein — Commenter
    Attorney Advisor, Federal Trade Commission

Panel Three: Ethical Standards for Human Subjects Research
  • Harry Surden — Moderator
    Professor of Law, University of Colorado Law School
  • Michelle Meyer — Presenter
    Assistant Professor and Director of Bioethics Policy, Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
  • James Grimmelmann — Presenter
    Professor of Law, University of Maryland
  • Janice Tsai — Commenter
    Global Privacy Manager, Microsoft Research
  • Claire Dunne — Commenter
    IRB Program Director, University of Colorado

Fireside Chat
  • Paul Ohm — Moderator
    Associate Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
  • Julie Brill
    Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission
Panel Four: Institutions for Ensuring and Policing Ethical Standards
  • Nicole Day — Moderator
    Associate, Holland & Hart LLP
  • Omer Tene — Presenter
    Vice President, Chief Knowledge Officer, International Association of Privacy Professionals
  • Julie Brill — Commenter
    Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission
  • Jason Haislmaier — Commenter
    Partner, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP
  • Ryan Calo — Commenter
    Lane Powell and D. Wayne Gittinger Associate Professor, University of Washington School of Law

Presented By
Tech Policy Lab, University of Washington

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