Mark Zuckerberg has famously (or infamously, depending on your view) said that the age of privacy is over. Privacy no longer exists. From a man who makes it his business to encourage people to share as much information about themselves as possible, his stance is not surprising. He’s made token concessions to people who still like to hold onto the illusion of privacy with tricky to find Facebook settings, while coming up with more methods to raise the hackles of privacy advocates. Facebook’s facial recognition feature is a particularly thorny issue. And it’s thornier in Germany than most other countries.
On 10 November ZDNet reported that Germany has decided to take legal action against Facebook and its facial recognition technology. Germany asked Facebook to remove the feature when it was first launched. There were negotiations (or so I believe), which proved fruitless. Germany set a deadline for the feature to be removed. It wasn’t. Now Germany intends to fine Facebook in the region of €300,000.
Germany’s bone of contention is that users must be able to opt-in to a feature and not merely be given the choice to opt-out, as is the case with all of Facebook’s features. In a statement regarding the opt-out status of the facial recognition feature and its violation of privacy, the data protection commission for the German state of Hamburg said, “This requires storing a comprehensive database of the biometric features of all users. Facebook has introduced this feature in Europe, without informing the user and without obtaining the required consent. Unequivocal consent of the parties is required by both European and national data protection law.”
Facebook maintains that it complies with EU data protection laws.
This isn’t the first time that Germany has clashed with Facebook over privacy issues. In August this year, Facebook’s Like button, which most Facebook users find innocuous, was found to violate Germany’s privacy laws. The Independent Centre of Privacy Protection, which operates in Schleswig-Holstein, north Germany, wanted websites to remove their Facebook pages and Like buttons or face a hefty fine. The organisation also strongly advises users not to click Like and other social media sharing buttons.
While it can be argued (quite easily) that Facebook’s approach to privacy is too wide, it can also be argued that Germany’s approach is draconically narrow. It appears that social media, by its very definition, goes against Germany’s privacy laws. Germany, it seems, would like to take the social out of social media. Most people know that social media profiles and interacting on social networks makes them publically accessible. If they’re smart they make use of privacy settings to ensure that they don’t broadcast to every Tom, Dick and Harry. If they’re really smart they’ll reserve all their really private sharing for in-person interactions.
Furthermore, most internet users are aware that search engines and social networks collect their user data, and they don’t care.
In a sense, one can understand Germany’s concern. While people enjoy all the benefits of social media interaction, when a tragedy occurs as a result of this open interaction they immediately point their fingers at government and ask why more wasn’t done to protect them. Germany is trying to cover its butt.
But how much butt covering is really necessary?
Isn’t it time internet users make more of an effort to be aware of the inherent risks of being online – social and otherwise? Isn’t time they started behaving more responsibly instead of adopting the role of hapless, helpless victim?
I still believe in privacy, whole-heartedly, and I believe that most features should definitely be opt-in rather than opt-out. But I don’t pretend that I have no power.
Users, governments and social networks need to get over themselves and allow new types of behaviour to evolve.
(Image by melodi2, stock.xchng)