In the eye of the Europe vs Facebook storm

28 Nov 2011

Whether it intended to or not, Ireland has found itself in the eye of the brewing Facebook versus the EU storm that will see the European Commission possibly issue a new EC directive over privacy settings on social networking sites.

The Telegraph reported at the weekend that the European Commission is planning to stop how Facebook allegedly “eavesdrops” on users, gathering information about things like location, sexuality, political opinions and religious beliefs.

The article alleges Facebook harvests this information and, regardless of their users’ individual privacy settings, makes this available to advertisers.

It is understood that the vice-president of the European Commission Viviane Reding is planning a new directive that could be introduced as early as January that will ban targeted advertising on social networks unless users opt in. If Facebook fails to comply it could be hit with a large fine or further action.

Whatever Facebook does, this “suspicion” about what it does with your information hangs over it like a dark cloud. The suspicion is largely a reflection of the sheer size of Facebook, its reach, its role as a repository of the hopes, dreams and views of entire generations of people and the fact its business model is advertising. The biggest concern is privacy and it is this that causes the shadow of suspicion to descend on Facebook with regularity.

At the heart of the EU’s latest foray into digital affairs is whether or not, as The Telegraph article alleges, Facebook harvests this information and makes it available to advertisers.

‘We never give information about individuals’

During the summer, I met with Facebook’s director of policy for EMEA Richard Allan and put such concerns to him.

Allan was adamant that Facebook does not share information about users with advertisers. What it does share, he explained, is statistics.

“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 added: “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.”

Whether or not Facebook will fight its corner in Europe remains to be seen, but Ireland – where Facebook employs a growing workforce of 300 people – could play a significant role in how events turn out.

The Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland in recent months began an audit of Facebook’s activities in Ireland relating to various complaints about privacy.

Austrian lobby group Europe Versus Facebook has 22 complaints lodged with the Data Protection Commission, ranging from allegations that ‘Pokes’ are being kept after the user removes them, the alleged existence of shadow profiles that gather information and are used to create profiles of non-users, to excessive processing of data.

It is understood that the Data Protection Commission will examine all of Facebook’s activities outside the US and Canada. Facebook’s Dublin headquarters are responsible for all users outside the US and Canada.

The Data Protection Commission will publish its findings at the end of the year.

The investigation by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner ironically coincides with a lot of this new activity around the planned EU directive. The the findings of the audit could do one of two things; it could clear up for once and for all a lot of the confusion around what Facebook does with user data; or it could seal Facebook’s future direction in Europe just ahead of its long-awaited IPO.

It all remains to be seen.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years