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Jamie Sheller
Jamie Sheller
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The Mismatch Cupid

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In his blog with a photo of a young boy experimenting on two potatoes, the president of OkCupid, Christian Rudder, is unrepentant about manipulating his customers in an undisclosed experiment that runs directly counter to the service they paid for or traded their access for exposure to paid ads. Rudder admitted in the New York Times, “We told users something that wasn’t true.” Specifically, this dating match site told unsuspecting users that they were good matches when their sites own algorithms( that their business model is based on) said they were terrible for each other. They told couples that were great matches, they were bad for each other . They also removed customer’s profile pictures to further manipulate the process and all so they could observe the consequences of their deception for the sake of science.

Link to Rudder blog http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/we-experiment-on-human-beings/?utm_content=buffer11ee8&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Mr. Rudder describes the boy in the photo as simply a “ young buck” who do an experiment to make a potato cry. Unfortunately for OkCupid they are not a ten year old “young buck”. They are a for profit company that provides a good faith dating match service. And these are not just potatoes they are experimenting on, they are their customers that trusted OkCupid and made themselves vulnerable to find the best relationship as promised. Shouldn’t this come with responsibility because there is great power wielded by the ability to manipulate a fellow human being? OkCupid seems to have given little or no thought or care to the consequences of these lies. One thing they got right is if the tears are trust and ethics, then the experiment has made us poor potatoes cry.

The excuses by Mr. Rudder and OkCupid range from everyone on the internet experiments on you, it’s just how web sites work, we are just trying to make our dating service better, we told you in our privacy policy we do research to fiascos and bad ideas are simple how science gets ahead. But there is actually a long history of ethics and best practice in the field of science and innovation. A mention of research buried in a general data usage policy is not informed consent for specific research involving the manipulation of subjects where you go well beyond observational studies of what is naturally occurring. There is a growing drumbeat from US and international regulators, privacy law suits and the general public that Big Data cannot trample all boundaries of privacy and ethics in the name of innovation and expediency. So if your business model involves the collection, sale, use or analysis of private data and/or metadata or artificially altering data for experimentation then consider the importance of being innovative not only with technology but legally and ethically.

The below considerations may allow your company to avoid litigation, regulatory scrutiny and gain public good will by instituting the following:

1. Privacy and Ethics must be by design

* Be transparent and consider getting consent if studies or research manipulate what is naturally occurring.
*Consider the potential consequence of manipulating the users experience and its ethical and legal consequences.
*Rambling privacy policies designed in a way that are daunting and bury a message that the consumer has given up ALL privacy and rights is not ethical or sufficient.
* Privacy policies should be as consumer friendly as possible with easy to use privacy settings and affirmative opt-ins or opt-outs.

2.Customer privacy should be the guiding principle

* Have opt-in feature to give up privacy or participate in research that goes beyond what is naturally occurring.
*If you are going to collect or use private information(PII) you need real-time disclosure on when and what you are collecting.
*With PII show data you will collect, who you will share it with and how it will be used. Be completely transparency.
* Have easy methods to block third party ads and content especially when manipulated by analytics using PII
*If you do research that manipulates the users experience considering following standard principles of scientific study including consent and post study disclosure etc.

3. Give Value

*If you are asking consumers to give up PII or participate in research for the commercial advantage of your company or other third parties then give consumer an exchange of value for access to PII or subject
themselves to experimentation.
*Make on affirmative offer of value that can be excepted in clear way in exchange for use of the PII or for their participation in research.

4. Security and accuracy of Data collected and retained

*Under ethical research principles subjects should be debriefed and advised of the full extent of the research at the conclusion of the study rather than being left in dark or not even made aware of participation
*If you do collect and use data/metadata you must have the highest standard and best practices for use and retention of data.
*Check quality of analytics and assumption drawn for discrimination, inaccuracy and put limits on inferences drawn.
* Create contractual requirements that prohibit the unlawful or unauthorized use of data so standards are maintained for data passed on to third parties.
* All third party vendors PII is shared with should meet standards and be held accountable for use, safety and retention of PII.
* Allow persons who’s PII you use to have access to their PII for review and deletion if requested. People should have the ability to manage the flow and accuracy of their PII across massive third party analytics systems.

5.Just because info is “shared” on the internet for a limited purpose does not mean anything goes- Certain Data always off-limits

*Certain data like specific medical data, personal financial data, address book data, location data attached to a person, and PII of minors under many circumstances should be off limits.
* Think through the consequences of your study protocols and make sure they are accounted for legally and ethically.

Consider these steps as the responsible direction needed for ethical and legal innovation while also allowing technology to continue to change the world. Be transparent and committed to ethics and privacy. This will go far in winning goodwill, loyalty and avoid the consequences of the legal and public backlash for failing to do so.

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    […] “They are a for profit company that provides a good faith dating match service. And these are not just potatoes they are experimenting on, they are their customers that trusted OkCupid and made themselves vulnerable to find the best relationship as promised.” – Jaime Sheller, The Legal Examiner […]