Facebook ran a mood altering experiment. What are the ethics for doing research with online subjects?

In 2012, Facebook ran a one-week experiment by changing news feeds and looking how people’s moods changed. The major complaint about this seems to be the lack of consent and/or deception:

The backlash, in this case, seems tied directly to the sense that Facebook manipulated people—used them as guinea pigs—without their knowledge, and in a setting where that kind of manipulation feels intimate. There’s also a contextual question. People may understand by now that their News Feed appears differently based on what they click—this is how targeted advertising works—but the idea that Facebook is altering what you see to find out if it can make you feel happy or sad seems in some ways cruel.

This raises important questions about how online research intersects with traditional scientific ethics. In sociology, we tend to sum up our ethics in two rules: don’t harm people and participants have to volunteer or give consent to be part of studies. The burden falls on the researcher to ensure that the subject is protected. How explicit should this be online? Participants on Facebook were likely not seriously harmed though it could be quite interesting if someone could directly link their news feed from that week to negative offline consequences. And, how well do the terms of service line up with conducting online research? Given the public relations issues, it would behoove companies to be more explicit about this in their terms of services or somewhere else though they might argue informing people immediately when things are happening online can influence results. This particular issue will be one to watch as the sheer numbers of people online alone will drive more and more online research.

Let’s be honest about the way this Internet stuff works. There is a trade-off involved: users get access to all sorts of information, other people, products, and the latest viral videos and celebrity news that everyone has to know. In exchange, users give up something, whether that is their personal information, tracking of their online behaviors, and advertisements intended to part them from their money. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way, set up with such bargaining. But, where exactly the line is drawn is a major discussion point at this time. But, you should assume websites and companies and advertisers are trying to get as much from you as possible and plan accordingly. Facebook is not a pleasant entity that just wants to make your life better by connecting you to people; they have their own aims which may or may not line up with your own. Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. are mega corporations whether they want to be known as such or not.