There's rarely a dull moment at the intersection of Facebook and digital privacy, but the last two weeks have been a particularly torrid time. From shrunken feedback loops to expanded advertising ambitions, several substantial moves have been made. But between strongly worded letters from regulators and viral misinformation from purported copyright experts, it's been difficult for users to get a grip on exactly what Facebook is planning and how data security may be impacted. As a result, we've decided to draw on a few of our most trusted sources for a summary that sorts fact from fiction.
Democracy and policy
In 2009, Facebook instituted a more democratic means of introducing and implementing changes to the site's terms of service agreement. If any proposed provision garnered 7,000 user comments, it would then be put to a vote. If more than 30 percent of all active registered users cast a ballot, the majority decision would be binding.
Unfortunately, this process has not scaled particularly well as Facebook's user base skyrocketed past one billion. As a result, the social network recently asserted that it would be scrapping the procedure in search of more substantial feedback.
"We found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality," Facebook vice president Elliot Schrage explained. "Therefore, we're proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement."
In a rather shrewd move on behalf of the public relations department, this news was bundled with several separate policy changes in a missive delivered late on Thanksgiving Eve. Updates to the site's private messaging system are primarily semantic, tweaking a few controls while still affording users the right to block the advances of unsolicited conversation partners. However, a new clause concerning the integration of data from Facebook's affiliate services (i.e. Instagram) could hold much broader implications.
According to The Telegraph, the Office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has already taken a dim view of these developments. Regulators cited Facebook's originally expressed intentions to grow Instagram "independently" after acquisition, but the new language seems to suggest a clear interest in building out unified user profiles that could be a boon to targeted advertising.
Similarly, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Center for Digital Democracy published an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing their concerns. After detailing the discrepancies between the social network's traditional safeguards and newly expressed ambitions, the authors called for the outright withdrawal of the latest slate of proposed policy changes.
As rumors swirled and speculation mounted as to exactly what Facebook's proposed policy changes meant for its massive user base, an unfortunate bit of misinformation emerged to fill the vacuum. A copyright advisory notice filled with "pseudo-legalese" began circulating the social network, according to Wired, promising users that they would be immune to Facebook's data exploitation efforts if they would simply repost the document in their profile.
Although the discerning user should have recognized that misspelled allusions to 19th century copyright statutes and the use of exclamation points probably weren't hallmarks of a legally binding document, the post went viral within a matter of hours. To Facebook's credit, however, site administrators quickly intervened to debunk the myth by issuing a comprehensive fact checking document.
"There is a rumor circulating that Facebook is making a change related to ownership of users' information or the content they post on the site. This is false," officials confirmed. "Anyone who uses Facebook owns and controls the content and information they post, as stated in our terms. They control how that content and information is shared."
As the end to user voting and rise of a certain copyright hoax attracted the bulk of journalistic coverage, tech pundits may have been burying the lead. According to GigaOM's Mathew Ingram, the latest round of policy proposals serves as the first true confirmation that Facebook is planning to unveil a proprietary advertising network which extends beyond its own "walled garden."
The potential for such a move was first spotted by Forbes columnist Kashmir Hill this past May following a separate slate of privacy updates issued in response to a regulatory probe from Irish data protection authorities.
"The policy previously stated that the company could serve ads with a social context outside of Facebook. Now it makes it clear they can serve any kinds of ads they wanted," Hill wrote at the time, citing comments from Facebook's privacy head Erin Egan.
Now that the social network has to consider the demands of Wall Street as well as Main Street, an external ad network appears to be the most promising solution to Facebook's lackluster mobile monetization figures. The site's massive user base has placed it in rarefied air, according to Ingram, allowing it to pursue advertising strategies of comparable scope and power as Google.
There has already been speculation that Instagram could be the proving ground for new advertising techniques. As the photo-sharing app continues to grow in popularity, so too does the treasure trove of personal information sitting in Facebook's ecosystem. If and when the parent company decides to push this data outside of its walled garden and serve targeted ads on external websites, it could be one of the few legitimate threats to Google's digital advertising dominance.
Data Security News from SimplySecurity.com by Trend Micro