Debate about technology encroaching on privacy is a common topic here on the JETLaw Blog.  For recent examples, check out Brad Edmonson’s post about Google’s privacy red teams or Joel Slater’s post about tracking; if you dig further back, you’ll see that I have even written about it before.

As nice as it is to be able to back up my smartphone’s contacts through my Gmail account, this convenience comes with the trade-off that Google now knows everyone I know.  Similarly, being tagged in Facebook photos provides an easy way to see other people’s pictures of me, yet it comes at the price of Facebook having a less-than-professional picture or two from my college days stored away on its servers.  Indeed, most of the conveniences of the internet demand a privacy sacrifice .

Determining that privacy concerns outweighed convenience, Facebook has opted to disable its facial feature recognition software that made photo-tagging suggestions–at least in Europe and at least for now.  This recognition software used data from old photos in which individuals were already tagged to suggest tagging similar-looking people in new photographs; in other words, Facebook has a rough idea of what you looked like and would suggest tagging you when someone who looked like you appeared in a picture.  This feature had been the target of protest and probes in the past, and this suspension comes as the Data Commissioner of Ireland’s reviews Facebook’s compliance with a series of recommendations the DPC made last year (the headquarters of Facebook Europe is in Ireland).

European Facebook users will have to tag their pictures manually--though perhaps not quite this manually.

Privacy and convenience, however, are not the only two forces in tension.  Profitable websites (or websites aspiring to profitability) must also engage in a delicate balancing act between providing their users with an easy-to-use interface and sufficient privacy settings while still satisfying their customers through prominent advertisement placement and enough user data to target their ads effectively.  With  lackluster stock performance after a disastrous IPO, Facebook is surely feeling the weight of each side.  If it encroaches too much on user privacy, Facebook risks losing users or incurring fines.  But, if it does not satisfy its advertisers by providing information about its users, Facebook’s already criticized revenue stream will dry up even more.

Even as privacy concerns force Facebook disables its auto-tagging feature in Europe, the company has partnered with Datalogix to track off-line purchases in here in the United States.  With some advocates warning that this partnership gathers far too much information about our private lives or that it may be in violation of a previous settlement between the FTC and Facebook, the push-pull between privacy and commerce/convenience continues to be as strong as ever.

– Hunter Branstetter

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One Response to Tag Me Not–Facebook Juggles Convenience, Commerce, and Privacy

  1. John Lomascolo says:

    I feel like this really should not be much of an issue for Facebook in regards to any possible negative effect from removing the facial recognition feature. I don’t think many people really needed Facebook to tell them where the faces were in their own pictures, and the feature really only provided the benefit of having to click your mouse one or two less times. If Facebook wants to worry about not annoying its customers with difficult interfaces, they should stop drastically altering the formats of home pages and profiles. I still can’t stand the new format of my profile, with the large image at the top, the convoluted timeline, and whatever else. But even so, I doubt Facebook has to worry about losing too many users. Like I said, I can’t stand the current format of my profile, and often times I find myself just scrolling down my homepage, not even really reading or looking at anything. But, I still keep my profile and still use Facebook. Do you know why? No? Neither do I. Until someone can figure out an accurate answer to that question, I’m sure Facebook will live on.