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For years, social media companies have sparred with lawmakers over how much independent access to platform data they should provide researchers. Sharing data with researchers allows the public to better understand the risks and harms associated with social media, including areas such as misinformation, child safety, and political polarization. Yet researcher access is controversial. Privacy advocates and companies raise the potential privacy threats of researchers using such data irresponsibly. In addition, social media companies raise concerns over trade secrecy: the data these companies hold and the algorithms powered by that data are secretive sources of competitive advantage. This Article shows that one way to navigate this difficult strait is by drawing on lessons from the successful governance program that has emerged to regulate the sharing of clinical trial data. Like social media data, clinical trial data implicates both individual privacy and trade secrecy concerns. Nonetheless, clinical trial data’s governance regime was gradually legislated, regulated, and brokered into existence, managing the interests of industry, academia, and other stakeholders. The result is a functionally successful (albeit imperfect) clinical trial data-sharing ecosystem. Part II sketches the status quo of researchers’ access to social media data and provides a novel taxonomy of the problems that arise under this regime. Part III reviews the legal structures governing sharing of clinical trial data and traces the history of scandals, investigations, industry protest, and legislative response that gave rise to the mix of mandated sharing and experimental programs we have today. Part IV applies lessons from clinical trial data sharing to social media data and charts a strategic course forward. Three primary lessons emerge: first, the benefits of research on otherwise secret data are cascading and unpredictable; second, law without institutions to implement the law is insufficient; and, third, data access regimes must be tailored to the different sorts of data they make available.


Originally published as Morten, Christopher J, Gabriel Nicholas, and Salome Viljoen. "Researcher Access to Social Media Data: Lessons from Clinical Trial Data Sharing." Berkeley Technology Law Journal 39, no. 1 (2024): 109-204. DOI:

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