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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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