Rebecca Watson had an interesting article/video about the ethics of A/B testing. A/B testing is a type of experiment often performed by tech companies on their users. The companies split users into two groups, and show two different versions of their software/website to each group, and measure the results. The problem is that when scientists perform experiments on human subjects, there’s a formal ethical review process. Should tech companies have an ethical review process too?
Of course, this question is being raised as a result of a specific experiment performed by a specific company. Pearson produces educational software, and performed an A/B test where some students were shown motivational messages. They presented results at a conference, and part of their conclusion was that this was a promising methodology for future research. But is it really, if they didn’t comply with the ethical standards in science? They certainly didn’t get consent from all those human test subjects.
Watson also brought up another case from 2014, when Facebook performed an experiment that changed the amount of positive/negative posts people saw in their news feeds. They published a study, and it was called “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. Sounds pretty bad, eh?
Watson seems to conclude that A/B tests should get consent, at least in the case of Pearson. But I think this is going too far. The thing is, A/B testing is absolutely ubiquitous. Watson says, “having worked in marketing and seen A/B tests, it’s just a normal thing that companies do,” but I think this understates it. My fiance and I were trying to figure out how many A/B tests Google has running at any time, and we thought it might be one per employee, implying tens of thousands of experiments. And most of them are for boring things like changing fonts or increasing the number of pixels of white space. If we judge A/B tests on the basis of just two tests that appear in the news, “cherry picking” doesn’t even begin to describe it.