LinkedIn experiment changed job prospects for millions – and it raises red flags: privacy experts – Reuters

A five-year study by LinkedIn of nearly 20 million of its users raises ethical red flags as some oblivious participants in the social experiment may have had their job opportunities curtailed, data privacy experts suggest and human resources.

The online networking and social media platform randomly varied the number of strong and weak acquaintances present in “People You May Know” user suggestions to test a long-held theory: that people are more likely to get a new job through distant acquaintances than they are. close contacts.

The resulting study, published in Science Magazine on September 15, by researchers from LinkedIn, MIT, Stanford and Harvard, confirmed the idea: users shown contacts with whom they had only 10 mutual friends doubled their chances of finding a new job, per compared to those shown to people with 20 mutual friends.

But it also means LinkedIn users whose algorithms were inundated with “close contacts” — those with 20 or more mutual friends — connected with fewer opportunities through the networking site.

Given the possible consequences, many people are unlikely to knowingly consent to having their network and livelihoods manipulated as they were for the study, said Jonathon Penney, a law professor whose research Internet, Society and Data Politics at York University’s Osgoode Hall. Faculty of Law.

“No way they consented”

That was “a large number of people who could be negatively affected in terms of job prospects just because of this study,” Penney said of the 20 million subjects. More than five million participants are believed to be from North America in the 2019 phase of the study.

“Most users, if you asked them, would say there’s no way they consented to this kind of study…I have real concerns about ethics.”

Jonathon Penney is a law professor whose research focuses on the internet, society and data politics at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. He says the LinkedIn study raises ethical concerns. (Submitted by Jonathan Penney)

While academics are held to rigorous standards of ethics and disclosure, it’s not unusual for marketing or media companies to use an algorithm to gauge the success of new products or services. This is a process known as A/B testing, where users are given access to different online tools or experiences to analyze how a person engages with them.

In an email to CBC News, a LinkedIn spokesperson said the company hopes to use the data to personalize its services.

“Through these observations, we were able to determine that you are more likely to get a job from an acquaintance than from your best friend,” LinkedIn said in an email. “We look forward to seeing how the study helps companies, recruiters and job seekers change the way we think about the job market.”

A global privacy policy

Although the company never informed its users about the experiment while it was in progress, its privacy policy states that LinkedIn may use members’ profiles to conduct research.

But online privacy experts who spoke to CBC News suggest that the standard privacy policies people click on when signing up for an online platform give companies too much leeway in how they use people’s information. people.

LinkedIn told CBC in an email that it conducted the study to get better insights into matching job seekers and recruiters. (LinkedIn)

In fact, the purpose limitation principle of Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) states that user data can only be used for the purposes stated at the time of collection — but companies often push boundaries, said Ignacio Cofone, Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence Law and Data Governance at McGill University.

“The problem…is that companies very rarely know what they’re going to use the data for later,” Cofone said in an interview.

As such, “the evolution of business law has allowed very broad purposes [of user profile use].”

LinkedIn’s study “perfectly illustrates how empty the meaning of consent is in our online interactions for businesses,” Cofone continued. For example, it would take someone 250 hours to read the average number of privacy policies they accept in a year, he said — and those policies often change unilaterally.

Penney said he recognizes the purpose of the LinkedIn study: a practical look at big data and human behavior. And the study had been submitted to an institutional review board for research on human subjects, unlike Facebook’s hidden psychological experiment in 2014which triggered an investigation by the UK data protection authorities.

Nonetheless, Penney said agreeing to a long and intentionally vague privacy policy when registering is not the same as the “informed consent” required for typical studies with human subjects — especially those that may have real consequences.

There are often significant hurdles that university-level studies must jump to conduct research on human subjects, Penney said. “You have to be very [precise] about the study and its objectives. If there is some kind of deception, there are often additional safeguards that need to be put in place.”

He also raised concerns that LinkedIn could use their study to test new avenues of profit.

“You can easily imagine that the kind of design affordance that LinkedIn is testing could be used for intent bias, where the best jobs [and] job opportunities are routed to the wealthiest users,” Penney said.

Favor the richest users

The platform has already made a notable shift to offer benefits to paying users over the past five years, said Neil Wiseman, principal consultant for Pivotal recruiting and human resources services in Mississauga, who uses LinkedIn in his work. .

LinkedIn’s premium subscription, starting at $30 per month, allows users to directly contact anyone on the platform. Those with free accounts, meanwhile, can only contact people they have connected with.

“When people reach out [via LinkedIn Premium], I try to give them something of value. They take the time and they pay to contact me,” Wiseman said. And he notes that those who contact a company or hiring manager directly generally see more success in the job market.

Rely on algorithms

Refer HR, a staffing firm that has served 42 corporate clients since opening in Vancouver in 2019, is also scouring LinkedIn for potential job candidates, chief executive Kobe Tang said. Recommendations made by LinkedIn’s algorithms play a big role in finding him and eventually hiring him, he said.

The networking site was also an essential space for Canadian tech workers following major layoffs by Shopify, Wealthsimple, Hootsuite and Unbounce in 2022, said Rob Gido, chief marketing officer of Refer HR.

“Added so-called weaker [connections] definitely improves your chances of finding new opportunities and new work,” Gido said.

Professional photo portrait of Ignacio Cofone, Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence Law and Data Governance at McGill University.
Ignacio Cofone, Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence Law and Data Governance at McGill University, says privacy laws should have stricter regulations regarding data privacy. Obtaining consent on how companies use people’s data. (Ignacio Cofone)

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) said in an email that it had not received a complaint about the study, but if it did, it could trigger an investigation.

But Cofone and Penney said the leniency of Canada’s privacy laws on consent is a sign of how the law is less stringent than its counterparts around the world. The European Union’s general data privacy policy has been updated twice since Canadian legislation was enacted 22 years ago, while that country’s privacy law hasn’t seen any changes. major during this period.

Penney said he would like to see legislative changes that give the federal privacy commissioner more investigative and enforcement powers — and that limit how companies’ privacy policies can be used in when it comes to personal data, Penney said.

The law should be updated to reflect basic user rights — and instead hold companies accountable for respecting them, Cofone said. If Jobs were to be harmed by a company’s use of a user’s profile, for example, “we shouldn’t exempt them from liability just because they have the illusion of consent,” he said. he declares.

“If Canadians aren’t happy to be guinea pigs in a platform study like this, they should vote with their feet for the party that offers stronger data protection and privacy laws” , Penney said.

“Politicians should pay attention to this issue…these types of platform practices can entrench social and economic inequality.”

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LinkedIn experiment changed job prospects for millions – and it raises red flags: privacy experts – Reuters


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