Thursday, 26 February 2015

Facebook Policy Updates Not Sitting Well with Belgian Watchdog

With the publication of new privacy policies earlier this year, Facebook hoped to make its position more clear in the face of growing opposition to how it collects and uses member data however things are not working out as expected.  Facebook updates are not sitting well with the Belgian Privacy Commission; they may even be in violation of European law.

A study compiled by representatives from two Dutch universities seems to indicate that the new privacy policies make it too difficult for Facebook users to protect their own privacy.  Even though Facebook members retain the power to control how their personal information is used, the company prefers to use an opt-out approach rather than a more acceptable opt-in model favoured by European governments.

Authors of the Belgian study say that the opt-out model is a problem because of the European standard that says a failure to opt-out does not imply consent.  Making matters worse for Facebook are assertions among critics that finding the opt-out option is too confusing for most users and, because they cannot find where to opt-out, many do not bother.

In Facebook's defence, the study does acknowledge that the policy changes published by the company earlier this year are mostly clarifications of existing policies.  There is nothing in the updates so extraordinarily different as to define a new policy that was not previously in effect.  The study says:

"To be clear: the changes introduced in 2015 weren't all that drastic.  Most of Facebook's 'new' policies and terms are simply old practices made more explicit.”

Study authors also take issue with Facebook's 'take it or leave it' approach; in other words, the only option users have if they do not like the company's privacy policy is to stop using the service immediately.  Facebook is completely within its rights to maintain such a policy, but the policy excludes untold numbers of potential members who do not have access to the platform because they cannot, or will not, accept the company's privacy policies.

The Price of Networking

It is difficult to say whether Facebook is really doing anything wrong or not.  The whole idea of social media networking, from the perspective of a company such as Facebook, is to provide people with free access in exchange for advertising capabilities.  It is the position of service providers that data collection and analysis is part and parcel of accepting a service for which the consumer pays nothing.

On the other hand, critics say companies such as Facebook go too far in how they handle data communications and sharing.  They would prefer the data be collected, analysed and then immediately discarded in order to protect individual privacy.  Furthermore, they believe such a short-term policy would be more than capable of meeting the needs of service providers whilst still preserving the security of users.

Right now, Facebook's biggest concern is not unhappy users; it is the European Union.  All eyes will be on Brussels and its reaction to the Belgian report.

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