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.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.