Facebook’s future: finding the Holy Grail of user control

24 Jun 2011

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There’s rarely a week that goes by when social networking giant Facebook – lately rumoured to have hit a whopping 750m users – is not ensnared in some drama around privacy and safety. JOHN KENNEDY talks to the man at the heart of the issue, Richard Allan.

The early morning sunshine in Dublin’s docklands casts the city in a rare light we don’t see very often as we wait in vain for our missing summer. Richard Allan – a former Lib Dem MP and Facebook’s director of policy for EMEA – politely smiles as I pepper him with all sorts of truths, half-truths and downright crazy and glaring misconceptions.

The media lately goes gaga every time a privacy or security story appears about Facebook or how the social network has become an unwitting accessory to some crime or other. The latest has been the whole issue of facial recognition to allow users to more rapidly tag their photos. It was widely reported that Facebook didn’t tell anyone. Allan patiently reminds me that Facebook actually announced it in December and that actually the technology has been available in Ireland since January.

Another big issue has been privacy controls. In February, Facebook simplified its privacy controls. “A core challenge for Facebook is offering users granularity of control,” Allan explains.

“Power, simplicity and user control is the Holy Grail we are aiming for,” Allan explains.

He says one of the major innovations in terms of user control has been to give users access to information around when apps last accessed their data. “For example, when they go into their settings they can see when FarmVille last accessed their data. This is continued on a simple screen.”

Users’ data

I put it to Allan that much of the media attention in terms of apps and privacy has been on whether or not advertisers can get access to individual user data.

“That would go against our core philosophy. Advertisers on Facebook only get aggregate statistics. Our tool will let you place an advert and tell you an aggregate of how many people, of what age, etc, shared that advert or clicked on it. We never give information about individuals.

“For example, you may click on a Starbucks advert or share a viral video but that does not mean Starbucks will get your information.”

Allan, who is pretty much responsible for privacy policy on behalf of Facebook everywhere outside of the US, works closely with the social network’s core engineers in Silicon Valley.

“The whole design of the Facebook platform is built around the user being in control. It’s their space and the advertisers need to fit into that. Maintaining the security of the platform is essential, it goes to the core of everything the company does.

“We have the strongest security teams in the business, consisting of a mixture of smart engineers who know how to build the most secure systems and even a former federal prosecutor and a team of lawyers who are looking forward to suing spammers in court.”

Allan likens some of the security techniques Facebook is beginning to employ – such as a text message method of ensuring the device you are accessing Facebook from is, in fact, being controlled by you, the user – to online banking techniques.

“We will put up a road block if there are suspicions,” he warns.

The furore around facial recognition, Allan says, was lamentable when you consider the feature had been around since January and automates the otherwise boring task of trying to tag every individual in every photo album you have on the social network. “There are very few complaints about it and it is very limited in what it does. It only works between friends and saves the user time in putting a tag on every photo. It’s not Big Brother by any means.

Self-regulated security

They say that if Facebook was a country it would be the eighth biggest country in the world. Well, the latest estimates put Facebook’s global population at 750m people. I put this to Allan and he replies deadpan: “The official line is we have over 500m users.”

Either way, Allan says Facebook is razor focused on putting the tools of control and security in the hands of the user.

“The problem with technology is that most technologies can indeed be used for bad things if they are put in the wrong hands. The central mode for policing Facebook is reporting by the community. The community are good at reporting bad things that happen on Facebook and most of these reports (for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region but not for the US or Far East regions) are processed here in Dublin.

“Really serious offences are reported to the police. Facebook has a ban on all forms of porn and nudity, for example. Most people on Facebook don’t come across that kind of imagery but we are aware of people at the margins who might try. We recently took on a Microsoft technology called PhotoDNA, which we use to identify child abuse photos and we work closely with the police authorities in every country. People can enjoy their privacy on Facebook but criminals have no reason to think they’re anonymous, either.”

Enabling users to self-police their social network and report misdemeanours is central despite Facebook’s work with various police forces. For example, the creation of a panic button in the UK and new tools aimed at social reporting have been pivotal.

In recent months, Facebook introduced social reporting tools like a ‘report’ button that allow users to alert other users (such as parents or employers) to situations like bullying, and resolve the problem before it escalates into a civil or criminal-law case.

“We’re focused on offering smarter options for report making,” Allan explains. “Unless people talk to other people in a particular scenario – for example, if I post a photo of you and share it with everyone and you’re upset about it and you don’t tell me – how can a situation be resolved?”

“Tagging, for example, is great way of at least alerting people to the fact that a picture of them has been shared out there. If you are tagged then you’re made aware and you can get in touch and contact the person who posted the photo in the first place.

“Ninety-nine per cent of Facebook users have never experienced a problem on the site, but we have to be ready for potential risks. But if people have an issue, it’s better to have it resolved person-to-person. Nobody has to be involved if it requires good social manners,” Allan says.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com