Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Chief Operating Officer
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Chief Operating Officer (Jolanda Flubacher)

SACRAMENTO — Facebook Inc. is defending its privacy practices after recent revelations that it altered some users’ news feeds in 2012 to gauge their emotional responses.

Researchers with Facebook and Cornell University reported in the June 17 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that for one week they had reduced the number of “positive” or “negative” posts almost 700,000 users received. According to the study, those who saw less positive content expressed more negativity in their status updates. The reverse was true for those who viewed less negative posts.

Facebook did not alert the targeted users to the experiment.

“The company purposefully messed with people’s minds,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center wrote in a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission. EPIC contends the altered posts amounted to manipulation and a deceptive trade practice. The group also says Facebook violated a 20-year consent decree requiring the Menlo Park company to protect its users’ privacy.

EPIC has asked the FTC to make Facebook’s news feed algorithm public. The complaint letter carries no legal weight and is one of many that EPIC and other privacy and consumer groups have filed with the FTC over the actions of social media and Internet search companies.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told a gathering of advertisers in India last week that the experiment was simply a matter of product-testing research that was “poorly” communicated to users, according to media reports.

A statement released by Facebook noted that users acknowledge in the terms of service that data collected by the company can be used for research.

“To suggest we conducted any corporate research without permission is complete fiction,” the statement said.

But whether Facebook sought users’ consent for the particular experiment is another question. Without commenting specifically on the Facebook matter, the American Psychological Association said in a statement on its website that most research projects require informed consent under its code of ethics. Informed consent, the association said, requires researchers to, among other things, explain the purpose of their study and to provide contact information for participants with questions.

Scott Kamber, managing partner of KamberLaw and counsel in the Facebook Beacon litigation, said Monday that he knew of no pending litigation tied to the recently revealed experiment.

“Because of [Facebook's] terms of service, [it] may not be a great case,” Kamber said.

Contact the reporter at cmiller@alm.com.