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Facebook's 'Darwinian' nature keeps users safe - Irish gov

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Facebook's handling of its user data in Ireland is legitimate, the Irish data protection commissioner's office said today.

The DPA released a 149-page audit report detailing the outcome of a privacy inspection carried out by the information commission in Ireland.

“The audit has found a positive approach and commitment on the part of Facebook Ireland Ltd to respecting the privacy rights of its users, said Irish Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes.

"Arising from the audit, Facebook-Ireland has agreed to a wide range of 'best practice' improvements to be implemented over the next 6 months, with a formal review of progress to take place in July of next year,” he added.

His deputy, Gary Davis, led the audit that was announced in September, following a number of privacy complaints brought against Facebook, whose international headquarters are in Dublin, Ireland, that were submitted to the Commission.

An Austria-based collective called Europe versus Facebook filed 22 complaints with the Irish data protection commissioner. Among other things, the group griped about Facebook's "Like" button that – it was revealed by Oz blogger Nik Cubrilovic – had carried cookies that included unique information after people had logged out of the dominant social network.

At the time, Facebook said it had "quickly" fixed the issue, but insisted there was no privacy or security breach.

As The Register pointed out in September, Facebook farms all the data it stores back to its spiritual homeland in the US.

But while a privacy audit in Ireland might have appeared significant given that the Irish data protection commissioner's office was the nearest responsible DPA outside of the firm's US headquarters, the reality was that Facebook isn't breaching European law.

Davis, who wants to see "improvements" from Facebook, acknowledged that in the audit document, seen by El Reg, and published later today. The Irish DPA described the dominant social network as having "an almost Darwinian nature", which meant it should have "robust mechanisms" in place. But the commissioner's office indicated today that it wants to see Facebook be at the forefront of data privacy online.

"Taking a leadership position that moves from compliance with the law to the achievement of best practice is for Facebook Ireland to decide but if it continues to display the commitment I witnessed throughout the audit process it is certainly achievable,” said Davis.

The report issued recommendations to Facebook and asked it to "commit" to implementing "best practice" across the company's site:

  • a mechanism for users to convey an informed choice for how their information is used and shared on the site including in relation to Third Party Apps;
  • a broad update to the Data Use Policy/Privacy Policy to take account of recommendations as to where the information provided to users could be further improved;
  • transparency and control for users via the provision of all personal data held to them on request and as part of their everyday interaction with the site;
  • the deletion of information held on users and non-users via what are known as social plugins and more generally the deletion of data held from user interactions with the site much sooner than presently;
  • increased transparency and controls for the use of personal data for advertising purposes;
  • an additional form of notification for users in relation to facial recognition/”tag suggest” that is considered will ensure Facebook Ireland is meeting best practice in this area from an Irish law perspective an enhanced ability for users to control tagging and posting on other user profiles;
  • an enhanced ability for users to control whether their addition to Groups by friends; and
  • the Compliance management/Governance function in Dublin which will be further improved and enhanced to ensure that the introduction of new products or new uses of user data take full account of Irish data protection law.

Facebook is expected to implement those commitments over the next six months, said the Irish DPA. An agreed "formal review" will undertaken by the commissioner's office in July next year. However, there are various examples throughout the audit report of Facebook batting back recommendations from the watchdog.

On the contentious issue of photo-tagging, Facebook simply said it would "examine the broader implications" of the issue during the July 2012 review.

The social network added in the report: "Facebook firmly believes that it has struck the right balance in terms of product development and user control" when it comes to use of its facial recognition tech.

On the issue of individual users having their profile pictures and names displayed in third-party ads, Facebook said it would " enter into discussions" with the commission "in advance of any plans to introduce such functionality."

The Irish data regulator had asked Facebook to consider gaining consent from its users before implementing such a feature.

Facebook EMEA policy wonk Richard Allan said: "Facebook has committed to either implement, or to consider, other 'best practice' improvements recommended by the commission, even in situations where our practices already comply with legal requirements. Meeting these commitments will require intense work over the next six months." ®

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