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Facebook tells privacy advocates not to 'shoot the messenger'

You have no right to be forgotten, argues big IT

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Facebook insisted yesterday that it is heavily focused on tightening privacy controls for its users, even if information posted on its platform is re-published elsewhere by people accessing the site.

The company's EU director of policy, Richard Allan, told attendees at a Westminster Media Forum seminar on Tuesday that the vast majority of Facebookers are on the site in order to share and find content with people online.

But he said he was concerned about what he described as "the concept to shoot the messenger".

Allan said: "There is an increasing trend that where people are uncomfortable about content, they're not necessarily going to the source of that content, but they're going to those places where the content is shared or indexed and asking them to resolve the problem. I think that's extremely worrying for a whole range of reasons."

Facebook hadn't always got its privacy controls "exactly right" in the past, admitted Allan.

He thinks the social network, which now has around 600 million people worldwide signed up to its platform, has done a good job of fine-tuning its data-handling abilities, despite some privacy worrywarts continuing to express concern about information that is mined from Facebook online.

"There's a popular concept that you can't delete information on the internet," said Allan.

"Facebook is very clear about how you can do that. It's confined to our own service. We're very explicit in our terms to say 'Hey, if you publish information to everyone on Facebook, you're publishing to the whole internet'.

"The information that you publish [can be taken by] other people and publish[ed] elsewhere. We can offer deletion in our own environment but we can't offer the same in other environments."

Allan added that many users of Facebook actually want the company to ensure that their data is kept on the company's platform. It's only "exceptional cases", according to Allan, where adequate "mechanisms" need to be put in place.

Amberhawk Training's co-founder and director Dr Chris Pounder said that the notion of "the right to be forgotten" could only be applied on an international basis. However, he pointed out that "Americans don't apply privacy to something in the public domain".

Just last week the European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, said citizens had the right to proper data protection, and the "right to be forgotten", and deserved national regulators which would enforce such rules.

But Pounder said many policy-makers were missing the point around online data because, in his view, it's not a privacy issue but a publishing one, which relates much more closely to how watchdogs deal with data protection.

"Right to be forgotten will not work. Simple as that," Pounder said.

Information Commissioner Chris Graham said that 1998's "Data Protection Act is showing its age", and added that education was key to enabling individuals to better understand how their data is circulated online when they sign up to services such as Facebook.

The ICO has a code of practice about personal information online that Communications Minister Ed Vaizey has told the commissioner isn't "widely read at the Dog 'n' Duck".

Graham wants not only regulators and companies, but also citizens and consumers, to learn about how their personal data is stored and published online.

But Microsoft's worldwide technology officer for privacy, Caspar Bowden, who was speaking yesterday in a personal capacity, bemoaned the role of the ICO – and said it needed to "steer people in a much more active way than we have seen before".

Bowden said: "The privacy risk is not clear to consumers."

He spoke of the "chief weakness" in the Data Protection framework, currently being mulled at a European level and pointed squarely at the UK's Data Protection Act, which states that data is only considered to be personal if it is identifiable to the data controller.

"If some other parties may collude to identify data, then that is not considered a personal risk in the UK," said Bowden.

"This has been a frankly poisonous issue throughout the UK Data Protection policy for the past 11 years, since the Act came into force," added Bowden.

Graham retorted: "It's about the difference between what the law is, what the law should be and what the law might become. Caspar [Bowden] said that the law wasn't the way it should be, the UK had not transferred a directive as they should have done... But the law I'm administering is the DPA 1998." ®

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