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This Week in Review: Questions on Facebook’s experiment, and a knockout blow to Aereo

Plus: Verdicts in the News Corp. phone hacking scandal, jailed journalists in Egypt, and the rest of the news about the news from the past fortnight.

This week’s essential reads: The key pieces from the past couple of weeks are Sebastian Deterding on the ethics of Facebook’s experiment, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Meyer on Jeff Bezos’ plan for The Washington Post, and Nick Davies’ sweeping review of News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal and British tabloid journalism culture.

The review has been off the last two weeks, so this week’s review covers the past couple of weeks.

Facebook’s ethically dubious experiment: Facebook was under fire again this week for collecting data from its users without their knowledge, this time in conjunction with Cornell University professors for an experiment on the influence of Facebook’s News Feed on its users’ emotions. The study, which was published in May, involved skewing what nearly 700,000 users saw for a week in their News Feeds with more positive or negative words and then measuring the positivity and negativity in their own posts.

The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer has a good explanation of the procedural and ethical details behind the study: Cornell’s institutional review board, which reviews all research the university does involving human subjects, wasn’t involved until after the experiment was finished. And as Forbes’ Kashmir Hill reported, the statement in Facebook’s terms of service that it can use its users’ data for research wasn’t added until after the study was conducted. It’s not clear what review the study did get — in another Hill article, Facebook said it conducted an “internal review” of the study. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance also reported on the misgivings of the study’s editor as well as her reasons for approving it.

Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram put together a good summary of the criticism and defenses of the study’s ethics from people within and outside Facebook. British regulators said they’re investigating Facebook on the study, and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg apologized on the company’s behalf — not for the study itself, but for communicating it poorly. One of the study’s authors, Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, defended the study’s design while apologizing for “any anxiety it caused” and noting that Facebook’s internal review processes have improved since the study was conducted.

Numerous writers condemned Facebook’s callousness in running the study, including Mike Masnick of Techdirt, James Poniewozik of Time, Jordan Ellenberg of Slate, and Alex Wilhelm of Techcrunch. Wired’s Katie Collins argued that the study reminds us that “Facebook as a company trades in information, not people,” and both Charles Arthur of The Guardian and David Holmes of PandoDaily warned that the study indicates Facebook’s immense power and its willingness to use that power for ignoble ends.

Several researchers published defenses of Facebook: The University of Texas’ Tal Yarkoni argued that concerns about Facebook manipulating its users’ experience are overblown because the News Feed is an entirely artificial environment, the site of constant manipulation. Northeastern’s Brian Keegan argued that “every A/B test is a psych experiment.” And in a more measured post, Microsoft researcher danah boyd said that too much of the criticism has narrowly focused on Facebook because it provided a concrete point on which to focus their anxiety about big data.

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pushed back against those defenses, arguing that the concern about manipulation is a legitimate one: “it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public,” she wrote. “That, to me, is a scarier and more important question than whether or not such research gets published.” Design researcher Sebastian Deterding had the most thorough ethical breakdown of the study, explaining the clash of opinions as a collision between understandings of the study as academic research and as social media A/B testing. At The Atlantic, Sara Watson said the controversy centers on the question of whether data science can consider itself a science.

Sociologist Janet Vertesi said this study points up the larger issue of increasing corporate funding of academic research. Microsoft researcher Kate Crawford called for future experimental studies to be made opt-in, and at Wired, Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hertzog urged the development of a “People’s Terms of Service Agreement.”

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A big court win for broadcast: Aereo, a startup that allowed users to pay to stream over-the-air television by renting tiny antennas, lost its case in the U.S. Supreme Court last week in a big victory for broadcasters. In its majority decision, the court stated that Aereo was not so much an equipment provider (as the company claimed) as a cable system that transmitted copyrighted content. Cable carriers have to pay retransmission fees for the over-the-air networks they broadcast, which Aereo was trying to avoid. Aereo suspended its service in the wake of the decision while it determines if it can find a way to continue, while its streaming-TV competitors began to move in on its spot in the market.

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, Public Knowledge attorney John Bergmayer, and Notre Dame law professor Mark McKenna all critiqued the legal foundations of the decision, concluding that its vague definition of why Aereo was substantially like a cable system provides little guidance for future cases and leaves the door open for a raft of legal challenges and differing conclusions. At The Guardian, Julian Sanchez argued that if future courts don’t care much about technological differences between Aereo and cable systems, the ruling’s precedent could endanger a whole range of cloud-based services, and Vox’s Timothy B. Lee made a similar point about the perilous future of cloud storage. Gigaom’s Derrick Harris said the impact on cloud services won’t be as severe as feared, but DVR could be challenged.

Fox has already used the Aereo decision to support its case against a streaming-TV service by Dish, and Variety’s Ted Johnson looked more closely at several possible outcomes from the ruling: rising TV bills and retransmission fees, more timidity among startups, and a broader legal definition of what constitutes a “public performance.” Forbes’ Sarah Jeong said we’ll never know the innovative startups we’ve lost as a result of this ruling.

Recode’s Peter Kafka said that while the decision helps the TV industry in the short run, it could hamper its development in the long run, since a legal Aereo would have pushed it to innovate more aggressively in light of its inevitable disruption. Instead, he said, “they’ll be sticking with lucrative business as usual for now. Pretty sure we’ve seen this show before.” Michael Learmonth of the International Business Times made a similar point. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Sarah Laskow said local TV news may have avoided catastrophe with the ruling, since a decision in Aereo’s favor may have eventually meant reduced retransmission fee revenue or even a move by the networks to pay TV.

Resolution and continued questions in hacking case: After at least three years at the center of the British media spotlight, News Corp’s phone hacking scandal reached something resembling a denouement last week, when the trial of two of its principal figures concluded with the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks and the conviction of her deputy, Andy Coulson, on a conspiracy charge. Brooks, the former head of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper holdings, proclaimed herself “vindicated” by her acquittal amid speculation News Corp might deploy her to Australia. Coulson, the former editor of the now-defunct News Corp tabloid News of the World, was hired as Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman in 2010, a move for which Cameron apologized last week.

News Corp’s trouble is certainly not over, though. Scotland Yard informed Murdoch it wants to interview him in their investigation into the phone-hacking case, and in the U.S., the FBI is still investigating whether anyone from the company may have broken American law. The Daily Beast’s Peter Jukes reported that the FBI has 80,000 emails from News Corp’s New York servers, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum said that while it will take quite a bit of firepower to go after Murdoch, his potential influence is being substantially diminished.

At USA Today, Michael Wolff noted how Murdoch was distanced from Brooks’ and Coulson’s trial, and The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta wondered whether the British tabloid press will be chastened by the embarrassment that the trial was for their industry. At The Guardian, Suzanne Moore said the scandal exposed the coziness between British journalists and politicians, and The Economist said it diminished the political importance of the British press.

The Telegraph argued that the trial was an underwhelming spectacle that ultimately showed there isn’t a conspiracy among the press against the public, but in a scathing review of the scandal and the trial, The Guardian’s Nick Davies said that despite the not-guilty verdicts, the News Corp newspaper empire’s corruption and coarsening of British public culture was on full display. The Independent’s Cahal Milmo and James Musick also reviewed News of the World’s behavior in the scandal, emphasizing its willingness to cut ethical corners in order to land scoops.

The Guardian also expressed its hope that the era in which the British tabloid insisted that there was no right to privacy had ended. “In its place should come respect for the universal right to privacy, honoured by all those who wield power – a mighty news company no less than the state itself,” the editorial stated. The Guardian’s media columnist, Roy Greenslade, criticized the British press for its shoddy coverage of the case.

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Egypt jails three journalists: Three Al Jazeera English journalists who had been arrested in Egypt in December were sentenced last week to seven to 10 years in prison on dubious terrorism-related charges after a surreal and chaotic trial. The Guardian had a vivid account of the verdict, while The New York Times focused on the response by the U.S. government.

Journalists around the world rallied to the jailed trio’s cause, including protests by hundreds of journalists in London. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the verdict as a politicized result with no connection to the law, asserting that “Egypt cannot be allowed to normalize its international relationships so long as it continues to jail journalists.” Despite the pressure from numerous Western governments, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said he wouldn’t interfere with the court’s decision.

Reading roundup: A few of the other stories and discussions that have merited some attention over the past couple of weeks:

— Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reported that The New York Times will close more than half of its blogs, including its aggregative news blog The Lede, as part of a long move away from blogs at the paper. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram expressed concern that The Times will lose some of the innovative drive that came with the blogs, though Times public editor Margaret Sullivan said moving away from blogs could be a good thing for The Times to encourage continual experimentation, as long as its journalists can integrate what they’ve learned from them into the rest of their work. Blogging pioneer Dave Winer said The Times’ blogs were never truly blogs because they were edited and impersonal, while PandoDaily’s David Holmes countered that we shouldn’t worry about what’s blogging and what’s not.

— SCOTUSblog, one of the top sources of U.S. Supreme Court news and analysis, had its appeal for a congressional press pass from the Senate Daily Press Gallery denied last week based on concerns about it independence from the law practice of its publisher, Tom Goldstein. Goldstein wrote a defense of his site’s credentialing case, one echoed by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick. The Columbia Journalism Review reviewed the history of SCOTUSblog’s application to the Senate press gallery to critique the gallery’s decision. SCOTUSblog also got support from the Newspaper Guild-CWA.

— Upworthy released the source code for its preferred metric, attention minutes, which focuses on time spent on a site rather than number of visits or shares. BuzzFeed explained what’s in it for Upworthy, and Digiday’s Ricardo Bilton, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Fiona Lowenstein, and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram all looked at what other publishers think of using attention as a primary metric.

— Finally, the Columbia Journalism Review went deep into Jeff Bezos’ efforts to restore The Washington Post’s global ambition. It’s a lengthy, well-reported look at some important changes underway there.

Photo of Facebook dislike by Owen W Brown used under a Creative Commons license. Photo of Al-Jazeera English producer Baher Mohamed, acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, and correspondent Peter Greste by AP/Heba Elkholy.

                                   
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