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, for a reported $55m. 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 "" 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.

Show Hide image

Why the philosophy of people-rating app Peeple is fundamentally flawed

The app claims that “character is destiny”, and that we should be constantly judged based on our past interactions with others. But do we really believe that? 

Yesterday, you were probably one of the millions around the world who recoiled from their screen in blank-eyed horror at the news: Peeple, an app to be launched in November, will let others rate you, publicly, on the internet, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't opt out, and you don't need to join in order to be rated on a scale of one to five by colleagues, friends, and romantic partners. That boy whose girlfriend you stole? He can review you. The boss you swore at as you quit? Her, too. Those people in your life who think you're just a bit average? Expect a lukewarm three stars from them.

Of all the online rage at the app's announcement, perhaps the most was directed at the fact that you can't remove your own profile. Other users need only submit your mobile number and name to create your page, and you have no control about who posts on there. Reviews of two stars or less are invisible to the public for 48 hours, and you have the chance to review them and try to "work it out" with the rater. Once that time is up, though, the negative reviews appear for all to see. You can comment on them to defend your corner, but unless they break the app's rules, you can't delete them.

There are all kinds of problems with Peeple's premise. Despite its founders' promises that bullying and harassment won't be tolerated (helped slightly by the fact that users must be over 21 and use their full name and Facebook profile to comment), it seems impossible that they'll be able to moderate this effectively. And as we've learned from sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, the majority of reviews are from those seeking to boost the company's reputation, rivals, or angry customers - it's rare to see one that's balanced and helpful.

Yet the biggest flaw of all is the assumption that public rating and shaming has a place, or is even acceptable, in our society. There's something fundamentally broken in the app's presmise, which is summarised in its tagline, "character is destiny".  As western society has moved on from earlier ages where people were fundamentally changed in the eyes of the law and public into "criminals" by virtue of their deeds, or a time where a woman was utterly defined by her sexual acts, we've ceased to accept this as truth. The app's whole set-up assumes that someone who has offended a co-worker is likely to do it again, or a positive review from a partner makes it likely you'll enjoy a good relationship with them. As a society, we accept that some violent criminals are likely to re-offend, but we also see the value of rehabilitation, and can accept that people make mistakes they're unlikely to repeat. 

The dark side of social media is that it moves us backwards on this front. It allows permanent imprints of our online lives to be seen by everyone, to the extent where they seem to represent us. Victims of cyberbullying terrified that naked photos of them will be released, or people who make public gaffes on social media, become reduced to and defined by single acts. The mental health deterioration (and sometimes  suicide) that follows these shamings hints at how unnatural it is for single actions to change lives in such disproportionate ways. 

Jon Ronson, author of So you've been publicly shamed, which cleverly links the current culture of internet shaming with a legal past where criminals were shamed indefinitely as criminals for a single illegal act, seems chilled by the prospect of Peeple:

As one review of Ronson's book noted:

As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. In fact, having researched the history of public shaming in America in the Massachusetts Archives, he can only conclude that Lehrer, for one, was humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century, the Puritans of New England having seemingly worked out that to ruin a person in front of his fellows is also to refuse him a second chance in life.

As Ronson explores in his book, extreme public shaming doesn't make us better people, or encourage us not to repeat offend: it shuts us down and exiles us from society in a way that benefits no one. (This makes Peeple's URL – – seem grimly ironic). What Ronson calls "chronic shame" occurs when our regretted actions harden into something far greater, something we allow to become part of ourselves. As Gershen Kaufman, a scholar of shame, notes:  "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

We also shouldn't be forever defined by a clutch of "good" actions, or people who see some benefit in leaving us gushing reviews. Those who measure their worth through social media come to rely on the endorphins sparked by small online interactions and boosts to their confidence, at the expense of the more slow-burning satisfaction of real life. A single person's thoughts about us are relatively inconsequential, whether positive or negative - but they're given far greater weight on the internet  by virtue of their permanence and publicity.

In Mary Gordon's novella The Rest of Life, a character wishes that someone had told her earlier that "the world is large and will absorb the errors you innocently make". If we're to avoid tearing each other to pieces, we need to make sure that this remains the case. 

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