Presented By O'Reilly and Cloudera
Make Data Work
31 May–1 June 2016: Training
1 June–3 June 2016: Conference
London, UK

Your TOS is not informed consent: Ethical experimentation for the Web

Rachel Shadoan (Akashic Labs)
11:40–12:00 Wednesday, 1/06/2016
Location: Capital Suite 2/3 Level: Intermediate
Average rating: ****.
(4.67, 3 ratings)

Prerequisite knowledge

Attendees should have an understanding of experimentation and a passing familiarity with the concept of consent.


For a week in 2012, Facebook conducted an experiment on 700,000 users. It manipulated the content of users’ feeds to show an unusually high proportion of either positive or negative posts to see if the tone of the users’ feeds would change the emotional content that users posted in their own statuses. Users did not know they were participating in an experiment. They were not warned of risks, and they were given no opportunity to opt out. When news of the study broke, Facebook expressed surprise at the negative response.

Facebook is hardly alone in this kind of research. OkCupid crows about their human experimentation, gleefully describing the experiment in which they deliberately misled their users regarding their match percentage. OkCupid’s justification—everyone else is doing it; that’s just how websites work—is a dereliction of the responsibility that experimenters have to the participants in their experiment.

Informed consent is the backbone of ethical research involving human participants. The power dynamic inherent in research places participants in a vulnerable position; informed consent protects participants from the researchers. Requiring informed consent for experiments demonstrates that you recognize and respect your users as autonomous beings with agency. Without it, there is no structure in place to prevent horrors like the Tuskegee study, in which researchers’ racist dehumanization of hundreds of black men led to their deaths from syphilis even after it was treatable. While Facebook and OkCupid’s experiments were nowhere near as extreme in ill intent or consequence as the Tuskegee study, they were not benign or without risk. As the services web companies provide become ever more tightly woven into our lives, the potential for significant negative consequences to these kinds of experiments increases. Rachel Shadoan explains why informed consent must be adopted as a standard now, to shield against the harm that unchecked research can inflict.

Topics include:

  • What is required for informed consent
  • Why informed consent is necessary for ethical research
  • How informed consent benefits your company and your research
  • Practical ideas for scaling informed consent to the Web
Photo of Rachel Shadoan

Rachel Shadoan

Akashic Labs

Rachel Shadoan is the cofounder and CEO of Akashic Labs, a Portland-based research and development consultancy, where she specializes in combining research methodologies to provide rich and accurate answers to technology’s pressing questions. Questions about people are her favorite kinds of questions to answer. Prior to founding Akashic Labs, Rachel worked with Intel exploring both how people use their phones in cars and how the ability to convert to a tablet impacts laptop use. She has also collaborated with Stanford digital humanities scholars and Oxford data archivists to develop a visual graph query language to allow researchers to form queries on complex multidimensional data. Originally from Oklahoma, Rachel holds an MS in computer science from the University of Oklahoma, as well as an MS in design ethnography from the University of Dundee in Scotland. As is thematically appropriate for her adopted home of Portland, she likes cruciferous vegetables (especially kale) and occasionally brews beer.