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W&L Law Review Publishes First-ever Disclosure of Facebook Internal Review Process

According to a recent New York Times article examining new Facebook suicide prevention tools, the social media giant is becoming more open about sharing internal practices related to user research. To that end, Facebook analysts chose the Washington and Lee Law Review to share for the first time a study describing their internal research review and privacy review process.

Facebook’s decision to discuss their research model publicly has made headlines. In addition to the New York Times article, coverage of the disclosure has appeared in the Wall Street JournalThe Guardian, and the MIT Technology Review.

The study, titled “Evolving the IRB: Building Robust Review for Industry Research,” was authored by Molly Jackman and Lauri Kanerva of Facebook. According to the authors, companies increasingly conduct research in order to decide what products to build and to improve customers’ experience with those products.

But they say that existing ethical guidelines for research do not always completely address the considerations that industry researchers face, and they argue that companies should develop principles and practices that take into account the values set out in law and ethics. In Facebook’s case, this means maintaining a standing committee of five employees, including experts in law, ethics, communications, and policy to vet research proposals and identify ethical concerns.

The Facebook study was the product of a symposium sponsored by W&L Law and the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), a DC-based think tank that promotes responsible data privacy policies. The topic of the symposium, as the Facebook paper suggests, was ethical review processes for big data research, with an emphasis on the ethical challenges of internal corporate research by companies that are able to harvest massive amounts of digital data. The event was also supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

“Developing meaningful processes and standards for ethical reviews of data research is one of the critical challenges companies face today,” said Jules Polonetsky, CEO, Future of Privacy Forum. “Socially valuable advances will only be feasible if trustworthy paths are established for academic and corporate researchers alike. Kanerva and Jackman’s paper documenting the Facebook research process provides researchers with a valuable model for serious evaluation of the benefits and risks of new projects.”

The W&L Law Review will publish all of the symposium material in addition to the Facebook study, and W&L will host a follow-up symposium in Lexington in February 2017. The theme of the symposium is “Markets and Morality,” and it will be sponsored by the Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the University’s Mudd Center for Ethics.

W&L Law entered into a unique academic partnership with FPF last year designed to enhance scholarship and conversations about privacy law and policy and to create new curricula and internship opportunities for W&L Law students. In addition, W&L and FPF recently announced the launch of a new summer program in Washington, DC for students interested in studying cyber and privacy law.

The FPF was founded by W&L alumnus Christopher Wolf ‘80L, senior partner and former director of the Information Privacy Practice Group of Hogan Lovells.

The Facebook study and other submissions from symposium can be viewed at the Law Review website at http://lawreview.journals.wlu.io/.