Bioethics Blogs

Computer Scientist: Informed Consent is the Wrong Metaphor

Michael Bernstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford and a former postdoctoral scholar on Facebook’s Data Science team, argues that “Hammering ethical protocols designed for laboratory studies onto internet experimentation is fundamentally misguided.”

[Bernstein, Michael. “The Destructive Silence of Social Computing Researchers.” Medium, July 7, 2014. https://medium.com/@msbernst/9155cdff659.]

Writing about the controversy over the recently published study of Facebook users’ posts after their news feeds had been altered, Bernstein laments the degree to which the debate has been dominated by “communication scholars, sociologists, policy folks and other really smart researchers.” (Oddly, he leaves bioethicists off of that list.) While acknowledging their “insightful analyses and critiques,” he calls for social computing researchers to push back against those who take clinical medical trials to be the norm.

Informed consent seems to be the crux of the issue. Should we require it? There are many forms: opting in for each study, a one-time “opt in to science!” button on each site, or advertisement recruiting. What about debriefing afterwards?

Regardless of the moral imperatives, let me start by saying as a designer of social systems for research that any such requirement will have an incredibly chilling effect on social systems research. IRB protocols are not the norm in online browsing, and so users are extremely wary of them. Have you ever tried putting a consent form inline on your social site? I have, and I can tell you that it drives away a large proportion of interested people who would probably actually want to participate if the interface were different.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.