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Warner Wants Answers on Facebook 'Experiment'

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) wants the Federal Trade Commission to provide him with information on reports that Facebook conducted experiments—involving some 700,000 users—in which they manipulated news feeds briefly in January 2012 to see how users would react.

In a letter to the commission Wednesday, Warner said he wanted it to look into the ramifications of such social experiments and what oversight "would be appropriate" for behavioral studies over social media platforms.

He wants to know whether best practices should be developed and enforced either voluntarily or by the FTC. He said he is not calling for regulation, and says self-regulation may be the better way to go. But he wants to know whether the FTC has a role to play in improving consumer trust in industry use of data, whether better education and transparency are needed, whether consumers should be given a more explicit opt out, or opt in, for such studies, whether the FTC distinguished between monitoring and manipulation of data, and whether the FTC thinks it needs more regulatory authority or technology in order to monitor this kind of experiment.

Warner wants to find out whether the industry can or should be acting better, whether it should be doing more internal reviews, and whether there should be a privacy point person at each company, said a spokesperson for the senator, and whether there are ways to incentivize that. "Before this becomes any bigger, he wants to have that conversation," said the spokesperson.

The FTC, in cooperation with the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, is currently trying to help the industry come up with voluntary best practices for a host of Internet-related practices related to privacy and information collection.

“I come from the technology world [he cofounded the forerunner to Nextel], and I understand that social media companies are looking for ways to extract value from the information willingly provided by their huge customer base,” Warner said in a statement. “I don’t know if Facebook’s manipulation of users’ news feeds was appropriate or not. But I think many consumers were surprised to learn they had given permission by agreeing to Facebook’s terms of service. And I think the industry could benefit from a conversation about what are the appropriate rules of the road going forward.”

One of the things the FTC is focused on is making disclosures of terms of service and privacy policies more obvious and clearer across the board.