Bioethics as a discipline emerged in response to a series of medical and scientific research scandals that made national news in the 1960’s and 70’s. As a result, last century’s bioethics protections were designed to protect human subjects in clinical biomedical settings. Although some of those early trials, including the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Obedience Experiment, were psychological, regulators were primarily concerned with preventing physical harm. Social scientists have for years taken issue with the imperfect fit between the kind of work they do and the regulations they must follow.

 

Response to the recent publication of an academic paper that used Facebook user data to test a theory of “emotional contagion” has echoed those earlier scandals and reignited debate over lingering questions, like what constitutes “research.” Bioethics’ boundaries must naturally expand to encompass new challenges posed by changes in social technology. Newer concerns about the ethics of online privacy, particularly in the era of Big Data, reflect changes in what it means to study human subjects in a postmodern world.

 

The Berman Institute’s bioethics scholars have not hesitated to join in the lively public debate about the ethics of social media studies. Leslie Meltzer Henry, with colleague James Grimmelmann, has charged that in this case social media companies acted not just unethically, but illegally. Jeffrey Kahn, with colleagues Effy Vayena and Anna Mastroianni, published an opinion in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science drawing conclusions and offering recommendations for future oversight frameworks. As technology firms and social scientists continue to look to user data for insights into human behavior, these issues will no doubt persist in challenging the traditional boundaries of bioethics.

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Theo Schall

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