Facebook says it really cares about your privacy this time, honest

Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference is supposed to be a showcase for all the cool new features the giant social network is either working on or busy rolling out to its two billion users—filters that turn your latest Instagram selfie into an animated picture of a dog, and so on. But not surprisingly, given all the furor over the Cambridge Analytica data leak and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony before a Congress subcommittee, the latest iteration of the Facebook love-fest started on a somewhat different note.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, Zuckerberg tried to crack a joke when introducing a new feature that allows users to watch a movie or TV show with a friend and chat about it on the site. “Let’s say your friend is testifying before Congress and you want to watch,” the Facebook CEO joked awkwardly. On a more serious note, he suggested he has learned a few things about how the social network can be used for negative purposes. “I’ve learned this year that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility,” he said. “It’s not enough to just build powerful tools. We need to make sure that they are used for good.”

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The Facebook CEO also announced a new feature that will enable users to block Facebook from tracking their behavior on the Web and through apps with Facebook access. It’s called “Clear History,” and operates much like a similar feature in most Web browsers: When clicked, it removes all of the data related to that user that is normally stored—data that is used by Facebook to help its algorithms figure out what you might be interested in, and which ads to show you (Zuckerberg pointed out that if you do enable this feature, “Facebook won’t be as good” until it gets to know you again).

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This and other new privacy-related features aren’t coming about because Facebook was raked over the coals in Congress, or because it is embarrassed by the Cambridge Analytica leak. One of the main driving forces behind the changes is the need to comply with the European General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which comes into effect later this month. These rules require platforms like Google and Facebook to give users more control over who has their data and what they can do with it, or face significant financial penalties.

In his testimony before Congress, the Facebook CEO was asked whether he planned to extend GDPR-like protections to non-European users of the social network, and he hedged his answer, saying some of the details were still to be worked out. The “Clear History” feature appears to be part of his attempt to introduce enough protections to satisfy regulators without actually impacting Facebook’s business—in other words, a way to eat his cake and have it, too.

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Here are some more links related to Facebook’s ongoing struggles with privacy:

  • Baby, please don’t go: In a blog post published just before the F8 conference, Zuckerberg talked about the new “Clear History” feature and how it works. “When you clear your cookies in your browser, it can make parts of your experience worse,” he noted. “You may have to sign back in to every website, and you may have to reconfigure things. The same will be true here. Your Facebook won’t be as good.”
  • Gaming the system: Wired described in a recent piece how some critics believe both Google and Facebook are trying to implement the GDPR rules in a way that allows them to “game the system,” leaving users no better off than they were before. The supervisor of the EU’s data protection authority called the online platforms “digital sweat factories” whose approach to privacy is unsustainable, and said their proposals violate the spirit of the new regulations.
  • Power move: Some believe the new GDPR rules and other privacy-related regulations that emerged following the Cambridge Analytica leak could actually reinforce the power Facebook and Google have, since it will make it more difficult for other companies to acquire data or use it to build new services. That would effectively build a wall around the data Google and Facebook already possess, argues tech analyst Ben Thompson in an essay for his subscription newsletter Stratechery.
  • A data shell game: Facebook also appears to be restructuring itself behind the scenes in order to reduce its legal liability under the GDPR: It is moving the responsibility for data involving all non-EU users—who represent about 70 percent of the total, or about 1.5 billion—to its US subsidiary from its Irish subsidiary, meaning they will be governed by US laws on data protection, not the GDPR.

 

Other notable stories:

  • A group called the Student Press Coalition did a survey of student journalists at 49 Christian colleges and universities and found that more than 75 percent had faced pressure from university personnel to change, edit, or remove an article after it had been published in print or online. About 70 percent said their faculty advisors have the ability to stop a story from being printed.
  • According to a memo obtained by Variety, staffers at NBC were told by management that if they reported the sexual harassment accusations against veteran broadcaster Tom Brokaw, they had to also mention a letter of support for the former anchor. The letter was signed by more than 60 employees of the network, including prominent on-air personalities, and some staffers said they felt pressure to sign.
  • The fallout from the White House Correspondents Association dinner continues: The Hill, a site focused on stories about Washington politics, said it is pulling out of the event because it “casts our profession in a poor light,” and The New York Timessays CBS News also considered pulling out, but changed its mind after being assured that event organizers plan to switch up the format.
  • Speaking of the WHCA dinner, CJR’s Karen Ho dug into the finances of the event, and found that last year, the organization raised a total of almost $900,000 from ticket sales and donations for the event. About $550,000 of that went to pay for the venue and the entertainer, and only about $100,000 went toward the scholarships that the WHCA says are the main reason it does the dinner in the first place.
  • According to Ken Doctor at the Nieman Lab, hedge fund Alden Global Capital—which owns the Digital First Media newspaper chain—may be getting attacked for all the cuts it’s making at the papers it operates, but it isn’t likely to stop anytime soon because it has one of the highest profit margins.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.