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CDT Research, Free Expression, Privacy & Data

Social Media Companies Should Give Researchers Access to More Data. Other Industries Can Show Them How

To understand and improve the effects social media has on the world at large, academics, journalists, and civil society groups need access to data from social media companies. As previous CDT work has shown, however, researchers today lack access to a variety of data that could be used for public interest research.

Social media companies often hesitate to share data with researchers because it could cast them in an unflattering light, or reveal sensitive information about their users or the inner workings of their products.  Other sectors, however, more successfully balance the benefits of novel research against privacy and other harms, and social media can learn from them. In CDT’s latest paper, Learning to Share: Lessons on Data-Sharing from Beyond Social Media, we draw lessons from three sectors on management of researcher access to data: clinical trials, electricity smart meters, and environmental impact statements.

These sectors are not perfect analogues for social media, nor have they struck a perfect data access balance, but they have had years more to develop strong regulations and institutions that can act as guidance. The FDA and NIH require pharmaceutical and medical device companies doing clinical trials to publish certain summary data, but only allow more sensitive individual data to be shared through voluntary means. Medical researchers use both kinds of data to ensure the safety and efficacy of medical products. Utilities, at least in some states, tailor access to smart meter data according to the different needs and risks raised by academics, governments, and individuals. Environmental impact statements are public but disorganized, and third-party institutions have been key to organizing them in a way that makes them usable by advocacy groups, academia, and civil society.

While earlier CDT research looked at researchers’ experiences using social media data, and surveyed proposed and passed legislation on the topic, this paper zooms out and offers ten high-level lessons from the successes and failures of other sectors’ approaches. Those lessons are:

  • Sharing data with researchers can drive more informed policy decisions.
  • Sharing data can let researchers double check otherwise unverifiable corporate claims.
  • Baseline information can be shared with researchers without compromising privacy.
  • Addressing the “black box” problem of how data gets generated will make for more robust, actionable research.
  • Transparency mechanisms let civil society serve as watchdogs for making sure companies are sufficiently sharing data.
  • Standards make shared data usable.
  • Data sharing should be flexible to accommodate public crises.
  • Ease of understanding is a factor that should be considered in the design of privacy practices.
  • Data can be tailored to different use cases.
  • Having a diverse set of actors controlling access to data creates new affordances.

To learn more about how other sectors manage researcher access to data and what lessons social media can draw from that, read the full paper here.