As Facebook turns off facial recognition in Europe, is this the start of a change for the company?

Meet the new social network, not quite the same as the old social network.

After a long struggle with the Irish Data Protection Commission, Facebook is set to delete the last tranche of data kept from its facial recognition feature, dubbed Tag Suggestions, and turn it off for all users today. It just the latest retreat in a series of changes which may redefine the company.

The Tag Suggestions feature was first announced in December 2010. By using a mixture of information about facial shape and features, and contextual clues such as other people in the same album or picture, Facebook is able to suggest to users the names of other people in photos they have taken. Similar capabilities appear in other software – Apple's iPhoto, for instance, has an offline version – but Facebook's implementation leverages its vast user base to get more data than any competing company could manage.

However, Facebook implemented the Tag Suggest feature as an automatic opt-in for all users. That, combined with the fact that most photos on Facebook aren't uploaded by their subjects – obviously, since someone is normally behind the camera – meant that it necessarily played fast and loose with privacy concerns.

Just six months after it was announced, the first objections were raised in the US, and in August 2011, a Hamburg court became the first to rule that it must be opt-in to comply with local privacy laws. A month later, the Irish DPC began a wide-ranging privacy audit in response to complaints from a user group, Europe v Facebook, which included in its remit the facial recognition issues.

Since Facebook's European operations are based in Ireland – largely for tax reasons, since the company has a corporation tax rate of just 12.5 per cent for trading income – the decision of the DPC has wide-ranging effects. The first report, in December 2011, gave Facebook six months to comply with a number of requirements. "Shadow profiles" – profiles made of people who haven't joined Facebook from information uploaded by their friends – had to go, while data retention for searches and ad-clicks was limited, to six months and two years respectively.

The DPC also required Facebook to provide a prominent warning to its European users that it uses facial recognition technology that automatically tags them in photographs.

It was this last requirement which Facebook seems to have found too hard to comply with. In September, it closed Tag Suggestions to new users, and this month, it is shutting the feature entirely in Europe, and trashing the already collected data.

It's a bold move to take for a company which has, in other markets, been doubling down on facial recognition technology. In June, Facebook bought Israeli company Face.com, for a reported $55m. Face.com was the provider of much of the technology used by Facebook, and the company argued that the transaction "simply [brought]… a long-time technology vendor in house."

The company has always known that privacy concerns are one of the largest hurdles it has to to overcome. In its IPO prospectus, filed in February, Facebook highlighted a number of privacy-related risks to its business, from the publicity pitfalls associated with moving faster towards "frictionless sharing" than it's users are comfortable with, to the hurdles that stricter privacy regulation could introduce.

The facial recognition skirmish is an unusually under-the-radar battle for Facebook, however. Most of its highly publicised missteps involve public information being shared without the explicit permission or notification of users. This includes, for example, the ability of friends to "check in" people in Facebook Places without asking, as well as the various concerns over the frictionless sharing of social readers and apps like Spotify.

In fact, the first major privacy battle Facebook had to fight was over this type of issue, though in hindsight it demonstrates nothing so much as how much more comfortable we've become about sharing online. In September 2006, Facebook activated the News Feed, a feature now associated with the company more than anything other than, perhaps, the "like" button. But at the time, the idea of aggregating all this information – publicly available, but never before displayed in one place – was enough to spark user rebellion.

In what has become typical for Facebook, the company bet the business on people getting used to the new rules of the game. And they did, just like they did with the changed default privacy settings, the creation and promulgation of "@facebook.com" email addresses, and the aforementioned Places feature.

But three recent moves by Facebook suggest that the company may be changing its attitude, both voluntarily and as a forced reaction to circumstances.

The first is the deletion of facial recognition data, as well as the other changes mandated by the DPC. Facebook has always dealt quite well with user discontent – if only by successfully ignoring it – but when the law gets involved, it can be forced to backtrack far further than it normally would. It also means that it can be held to account for infractions of privacy which the average user simply won't notice.

Not many of us realised Facebook was even tracking search data, putting together a profile of us which we can't see, and few would have cared even if we did. But the DPC, like other information commissioners worldwide, has the authority and remit to ensure that data is collected with permission, and not retained indefinitely. Facebook knows it will face these problems with greater regularity as other nations step up to their responsibility to protect their users, and that will surely change its attitude.

The second is that Facebook itself has been backtracking from frictionless sharing, which had the potential to be one of the biggest clashes between it and its users. Andy Mitchell, Facebook's Manager of Media Partnerships, said last month that the company was moving away from it because user feedback wasn't good. This isn't just an issue with people being displeased that what they thought was private was in fact public – although that has happened as well.

For Facebook, the bigger issue is that the results of frictionless sharing just aren't particularly interesting. Sure, Facebook would like to know every news story you read, or every song you play, because it helps them build up a formidable picture of you to sell to advertisers. The problem is that social media is only interesting to anyone else if it allows people to present a curated vision of themselves. Nobody cares about the full list of songs you've played, but they may want to hear the one which is your absolute favourite at the moment. If Mitchell is to be believed, Facebook has come around to this way of thinking. The privacy benefits for users should be obvious.

The third change by Facebook is perhaps the most important. It is that the company is demonstrating a growing awareness that advertisement income alone cannot help the company achieve the goals its shareholders have set for it. It's tricky to estimate a price/earnings ratio for Facebook, since it hasn't released any results since it went public, but Business Insider estimate it's around 32. That means that you would need to hold Facebook stock for thirty-two years for it to make profit equivalent to the amount of capital you've provided them – or, more accurately, it means that the majority of Facebook's shareholders expect it to start making more money.

The problem is that Facebook's previous earnings growth has come largely from user growth. But with over a billion users, it starts to get very tricky to get any growth – the size of the planet is a constraining factor. As a result, Facebook needs to get more money per user.

One way to do this is, of course, to make ad space more valuable to advertisers, and that's what all of the company's social profiling is aimed at; but that's unlikely to be enough. For perhaps the best hint of the future, look to Facebook's recent launch of Facebook Gifts. The tagline is "Real moments. Real gifts." But perhaps the phrase "Real money" should be added there, because that's what is really important. Facebook wants you to spend real money buying gifts for friends through them – and then, of course, take a cut of the transaction that follows.

A Facebook which makes money from the services it provides, rather that providing services as a sidebar to its real business of selling your data to advertisers, is a company which has a vastly longer half-life. I hope they know that too.

The facebook hompage in 2005. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Roosh V via YouTube
Show Hide image

Men's rights activist Roosh V isn't just a sexist: he hates the modern world

Roosh and his community have seen that cultural change is chipping away at their privilege, and they're having none of it. 

When an activist known as Roosh V organised 165 “meet-ups” for like-minded men in 43 countries for this Saturday, the backlash was instantaneous. Signatures on petitions to keep Roosh away (even from countries where he wasn't planning to visit) stretched into the thousands. Police in many of the cities where meet-ups were planned said they would be keeping an eye on the events. Counter-protests were organised. And so today, Roosh announced that the meetings would be cancelled, since he could “no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend”.

Roosh V is a prominent member of the section of the internet known as the "manosphere": he runs popular websites including Return of Kings and his own blog, and began his career by writing guide books about how to pick up women in countries from Poland (“What to do when a Polish guy inevitably tries to cockblock you”) to Colombia (including “an explanation into the Colombian prepago female (gold digger)").

Yet as demonstrated in a recent Reggie Yates documentary programme about men's rights activists, 36-year-old Roosh seems a lot more interested in his own theories about society than in handing out pick-up tips. "This is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory," Yates notes at one point. 

Roosh actually distanced himself from the Men's Rights community, or MRAs (though he arguably does fight for what he sees as men's rights) in 2009, when he argued that the group was filled with men incapable of taking action or improving their "game" with women. He would be more likely to self describe as a pick-up artist, or PUA, though his writing usually focusses on issues beyond simply "how to pick up women". 

While Roosh's views are objectionable and off-the-wall, they’re also subscribed to in full or in part by what may be millions of men around the world. So what does he believe? And how did this alternate worldview develop in the mind of a well-travelled, university-educated American son of immigrants?

Roosh isn't “pro-rape”, but he thinks rape is the fault of its victims

Many headlines this week called the proposed meetings "pro-rape", with evidence taken from a single post entitled “How to Stop Rape” which Roosh wrote in February 2015 (and which he recently claimed was satire). In it, he writes that since “women are not getting raped by violent offenders . . . they are getting raped by men they already know”, then rape (or as Roosh medievally puts it, “violent taking of a woman”) on private property should be made legal. This would, he argues, force women to “take responsibility” for their conduct on dates or while alone with men.

This appeals to a popular trope within the manosphere: that men will be "falsely" accused of rape under progressive rape laws that dictate that drunk women can't give consent, or accused by women who later regret the sexual encounter. The community is particularly aerated about Califiornia’s Yes Means Yes law, which rules that silence or lack of resistence doesn’t mean someone has consented (though consent can still be non-verbal).

Roosh's bizarre “legalise rape” argument is an apt symbol of his general appraoch: it’s a kind of devil’s advocacy, mixed with a form of upside-down rationality. He takes a common complaint among men’s groups and pushes it to an extreme conclusion, to the delight of his fans.

It’s also worth noting that some of Roosh’s pick-up tactics and advice could be seen to encourage rape – it’s probably fairer to call him “pro-rape” on these grounds, rather than his blogpost. In another trope common to the MRA community, he believes women say no in order to play “hard to get”, and that any self-respecting pick-up artist would override "no" up to a certain point. In a two-hour Skype interview with feminist artist Angela Washko, he argues:

“If a girl says no, that's no. But if she's still there and she allows you to touch her again and kiss her again that's not rape. That is not.”

In "When no means yes", a post from 2010, he gives the following "tip": "‘No’ when you try to take off her panties means . . . ‘Don’t give up now!’”

He knows his audience

In some of his writing, or while speaking to certain interviewers, Roosh can seem almost harmless – misguided, yes, but intellectually engaged and cautious about offending. 

In his interview with Washko, the pair manage to agree on the idea that it’s in the economic interests of the world’s richest to force all women to both work and have families, as wages can be lower: “The more people you force into the workforce, the cheaper labor is.”

The fact that women should have the choice to raise children instead of having a career is something both can agree on. 

But elsewhere, Roosh's concerned citizen mask slips. Earlier this week, he told members of his website forum to pool the details of journalists who write mean things about him with the ominous phrase: "We're going after the root of the problem". Elsewhere, he has said he won’t be interviewed by female journalists unless they give him a blowjob, and has stated that, “my default opinion of any girl I meet is worthless dirty whore until proven otherwise”.

This dual personality is something he shares with the comedian Dapper Laughs, who appeared on Newsnight to apologise for his rape joke-heavy comedy and explain that he was satiring men’s sexism, but now tells audiences that at the time he wanted to tell interviewer Emily Maitlis to “get your f***ing gash out!”  

He’s a savvy businessman

Which raises the question: how much of Roosh’s bluster is an act? Roosh must have learned by now that his more incendiary statements earn him attention, and even money through traffic to his sites. Dapper Laughs knows he needs to undercut his earnest, turtlenecked performance on Newsnight to keep earning as a comedian. 

Roosh told Reggie Yates he receives around a million combined hits to his websites every month, but this month, the figure must be far higher. A Vice journalist has pointed out that Roosh boasts about his online metrics on Twitter, and seems to be in competition with fellow controversy-chaser Milo Yiannopoulos. 

Which brings us to another question: did Roosh ever think the meet-ups would go ahead? Was he in fact expecting a media backlash, which would then allow him to show his followers that they are victimised and under attack, just as he's told them?

The whole thing does seem built as a vehicle for media attention: the covert meetings complete with a special code ("Do you know where I can find a pet shop?") which somehow found its way into every mainstream media story about the meetings – including, of course, this one.

Roosh advertised them on public sites, despite the fact that he probably could have contacted many supporters through more private forms of social media and regularly keeps the locations of his own talks a secret. His attempt to smear journalists is playing out in a private forum – strange that he couldn't use similar channels to arrange Saturday's meetings. 

He thinks the Western world is on the verge of a “cultural collapse”

Roosh claims that his science background taught him how, as he tells Washko, “to know what is a lie . . . when someone is full of shit I can tell because they’re just using what? Emotion.”

Travelling, meanwhile, has exposed him "to different ideas, belief systems than other people – I have more data and background in my mind that allows me to reach conclusions that are more accurate”.

This, in turn, prompts this surreal exchange:

Image: Angela Washko.

This defence – of science and worldliness, in the face of closed-minded emotion on the part of feminists – is important to Roosh precisely because his worldview actually seems to rely on an emotional, kneejerk hatred of change. 

Beyond the more typical MRA beliefs, Roosh has a comprehensive argument for how feminism and other liberal, progressive attitudes are about to ruin the modern world. In a document titled “Cultural collapse theory” he outlines a world where women earn “25 per cent more than women on average”, children are taught to “respect all religions but that of their ancestors”, and the reproductive rate falls because women have careers.

Here is the progression of a “cultural collapse”:

This, of course, is a dressed-up version of the familiar dystopia imagined by those who think liberal ideas and cultural change are driving us to disaster. In this context, Roosh’s ideas about women begin to look more like a refusal to get on board with the modern world: the way he sees women would have been very familiar a few centuries ago.

His hatred also extends to other social groups who have recently gained privilege, including transgender people (“If you are genetically a man, but you all of a sudden have this need to dress up like a girl . . . you should seek help"), gay people ("they're trying to encroach on what normal humanity is”), and stay-at-home fathers (“I mean if you ever see me pushing a stroller or changing a diaper, something is wrong. I must be on drugs"). 

The best proof of Roosh’s affection for the past is his opinion on where it all went wrong: I’m pretty sure giving women the right to vote was the start.”

In one particularly pathetic plea during his interview with Washko, he cries “You can’t even have sexy babes in games anymore!” 

…so any kind of cultural change is bad

When speaking to a group of London men in Reggie Yates’ documentary, Roosh emphasises the idea that "women and gays are seen as superior to straight men", and that straight men are, effectively, an oppressed group. “Men are not allowed to speak the views that I am speaking,” he tells his rapt audience. The cancelled meetings, it seems, function as proof of this. 

Yates may think Roosh is touting a conspiracy theory, but at heart, it may be simpler than that. Roosh’s pseudo-intellectualism can be boiled down to a single point: the modern world is chipping away at his privilege, and he – and his followers – don’t like it at all. Roosh is furious that, in his eyes, the media is “encouraging” children to be gay, asking Washko: “Why is the media all of a sudden in the business of shaping the sexuality of human beings?”

As Washko writes in her transcript, she resists the urge to reply: “But it always has been!” The difference now is that the narrative (if it exists, which I’d argue it doesn’t particularly) just doesn’t favour Roosh’s demographic anymore. As one of Roosh’s fans tells Yates, “We’re losing ground.”

While equality isn’t a zero-sum game, true cultural and political change will require privileged groups to lose some ground – to give up some of that privilege. Behind the long words and cultural theory, Roosh and his followers are the men simply refusing to do so.  

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.