Facebook forced to grow up by Canadians

Wel, Facebook has finally been forced to grow up  and develop a sensible approach to personal data. Previously, as I have documented elsewhere, the US-based social networking site had pretty much assumed ownership of all personal data in perpetuity. However it has now promised to develop new privacy and consent rules and ways of allowing site users to chose which data they will allow to be shared with third parties.

So why the sudden change of heart? Well, it’s all down to those pesky Canucks. Yes, where the USA couldn’t bothered and where the EU didn’t even try, the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, had declared Facebook to be in violation of Canada’s privacy laws. And it turns out that in complying it was just easier for Facebook to make wholesale changes for all customers rather than trying to apply different rules to different jurisdictions.

This suggests an interesting new phenomenon. Instead of transnational corporations being able to always seek out a country with the lowest standards as a basis for compliance on issues like privacy and data protection, a nation with higher standards and an activist regulator has shown itself able to force such a company to adjust its global operations to its much higher standard. This is good news for net users worldwide.

However, we shouldn’t rejoice too much: as Google and Yahoo have shown in the case of China, in the absense of any meaningful internal ethical standards, a big enough market can still impose distinct and separate policies that are far more harmful to the interests of individual users in those nations.

Is Facebook going to sell your data or not?

the primary limitation to any social networking tool being used for purposes that users don´t like is that the users can just walk

facebookThere´s been some discussion recently over surveillance on Facebook and in particular, the question of whether Facebook is planning to make the vast amounts of data it has for more targeted and intrusive marketing. Britain´s Daily Telegraph reported yesterday, based on an interview with Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s global markets director (and not coincidentally, sister of founder Mark Zuckerberg), that it was going to do this. It based its conclusion on the fact that Facebook was demonstrating new instant polling tools at the Davos World Economic Forum, Facebook´s development of so-called User Engagement Advertising, and the fact that unnamed ´marketing experts´ say that Facebook could be ´worth millions´to advertisers.

But, it turns out this is putting 2+2 together to make 5. Techcrunch was one of many tech blogs that questioned the Daily Telgraph´s story. They asked Facebook what was going on and were told that the WEF polls were nothing to do with Engagement Ads (which have been on Facebook for a while already) and that ´Facebook has, for many years, allowed the targeting of advertising in a non-personally identifiable way, based on profile attributes. Nothing has changed in our approach, and Facebook is committed, as always, to connecting users in a trusted environment.´

Now I don´t trust The Daily Telegraph, which has been declining in quality over the last few years and cutting experienced journalists in favour of using agency stories rewritten by trainees. But equally I don´t trust Facebook (or for that matter, any company run by rich kids whose only experience of the world is college, but that´s another story…). It is easy to imagine that they encourage such stories to test the waters. If the reaction was less worried, they might indeed decide to reveal themselves as a massive marketing scam, but the primary limitation to any social networking tool being used for purposes that users don´t like is that the users can just walk. Facebook appeared from nowhere to become a global player within a few years and it could disappear just as quickly when the next big thing arrives. The rise and fall of net-based companies is only going to get faster.

(Thanks to Sami Coll and Jason Nolan for bringing this to my attention)