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.

YouTube / Muhammad Shahid Nazir Ahmad
Show Hide image

Living the Meme: What happened to the One Pound Fish man?

Four years after he shot to fame, the singer behind “One Pound Fish” exclusively reveals what happened next.

“We can talk tomorrow,” reads the message. “And it would be exclusive because I am going to share first time something only with you.”

As far as emails go, this is a good one – not simply because of its content but because it was sent by Muhammad Shahid Nazir Ahmad, a man you probably know better as the singer behind “One Pound Fish”. “Come on ladies, come on ladies,” went the song that shot the then-market trader to fame in April 2012, “Have a, have a look, one pound fish. Very, very good, one pound fish.”

Within months, Nazir had been invited to perform on The X Factor, was signed by Warner Music, and released an official music video that, at the time of writing, has been viewed 29,290,435 times. “I can forget everything in my life but I cannot forget 2012,” he says. “Before 2012 I was nothing.”

Nazir is ringing me from his home in Pakistan, where he returned in December 2012. Headlines at the time were confused – most said he had been deported because working at the market violated his visa, but Nazir himself told the BBC he had only gone home to apply for a French visa in order to perform there. It seems his stay in the UK was brought to an end because of the entertainment he brought to millions, rather than the fish he so famously flogged.

Now, impassioned and booming, but softening his speech with the occasional “my dear”, he tells me a different story.

“I am telling you for the first time, no one knows this,” he says. “I have been refused a British visa two times.”

Nazir tells me he first came to England on a student visa and returned to Pakistan of his own volition three days before it expired. However, when he applied for a new visa, he was rejected on the grounds that he breached his student visa by creating a music video with Warner Music.

“By your own admission, during your time of your previous leave in the UK, you were signed as a singer by an entertainment company,” reads the official refusal document from the UK Border Agency in August 2013. Nazir, however, denies any deliberate wrong doing. “It was technically a mistake, but not made by only one person. Warner Brothers released the music. If I am guilty, I am not the only person,” he says. “The world is not for innocent people.”

A year later, Nazir applied again in order to take part in a film that was going to be made about his life. “I am not satisfied that you are genuinely seeking entry as an entertainer for a limited period as stated by you,” reads the refusal.

“It is a very hard punishment,” says Nazir. “I made British people happy.”

When we speak, Nazir is under the impression he is now banned from applying for a new visa for ten years, but a Home Office spokesperson refutes this, saying he never had a ten-year ban and can apply at any time, and all applications are considered based on their individual merits. The now 35-year-old would like nothing more than to return to England, telling me – twice – that “after One Pound Fish it is my one pound wish”.

“I helped Britain. I did a great thing for British people,” he says. “I helped the one pound currency. You have Americans singing about the pound, Pakistanis singing about the pound, I went to number one in Japan. You have Japanese singing about the pound.

“Theresa May is a lady, I have done something good for ladies. I have done something good for your country,” he says, asking both the Prime Minister and the monarch to consider his cause and allow him back into the UK. “Queen Elizabeth II, you are a very honourable woman. You are the symbol of the pound; I am the singer of the pound.”

It is clear that going viral deeply impacted Nazir, who – despite the visa rejections – bellows “No, no, no, no!” when I ask him if there were any downsides. “It was a great honour,” he says, noting that he has loved singing since he was a child.  “People came up to me and asked to talk or for selfies. It is an honour for me that people recognise me . . . People say to me ‘You have a unique fame.’ Like superheroes. Like Spiderman, or Superman, I am Fish Man.”

Although viral fame affected him emotionally, he is financially little better off than before. Nazir now works for his family business in Pakistan, a goods transport company, and produces music on the side, most recently a tribute to Michael Jackson in June. “How can you make money from YouTube, Facebook, iTunes? I had no idea back then,” he tells me. “The person who uploaded the video made money, Warner Brothers made money, I did not make a single penny.”

Warner Music has been contacted for comment on whether it made money from the video, but whether or not Nazir earned anything from it doesn’t matter to the Home Office. “You were signed to Warner Music . . . ” reads the refusal. “Whether you have collected the funds in relation to that contract is immaterial.”

Extract from the UK Border Agency’s​ visa refusal letter.

It is unclear what will happen to Nazir next, though he is exceedingly grateful when I pass on the Home Office’s message that he has not been banned for ten years, and can apply for a new visa at any time. Asked if he would like to go viral again, Nazir is enthusiastic, and when I ask how, he reveals his true love of Britain. “It is my wish to do something more with pounds,” he says.

“Living the Meme” is a series of articles which explores what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the first in the series here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

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