Forget Me Nots: The Network effect on Social Networks


The Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s recent audit of Facebook is being brought to court by a European privacy campaign group, with the group claiming that that the audit did not go far enough. Max Schrems, a law student working for the Europe v Facebook group, said Facebook was keeping deleted data on both users and non-users. The audit itself found that Facebook was broadly compliant with Irish and European law and on the back of this audit The Irish Data Commissioner is looking to carry out audits of all the major social networking companies that have operations in Ireland, including Twitter and LinkedIn.

This case touches on several aspects of Data Protection and its effect on social networks that will be relevant in the coming year. With social media monitoring site reporting that almost half the population of Ireland is on Facebook (2.2 million Irish users, 48.7% of the population) this is particularly applicable for the Irish internet market.

No less than Mark Zuckerberg has said the “wider strategic rift” between Facebook and Google occurred over their differences in the way they approach to privacy. While some commentators glibly remark that Facebook users have, by posting on the social networking site, given up any right to freedom, Zuckerberg himself would disagree.

“I think the main thing is about when people share something on Facebook, we want to give them not only the ability to broadcast something out but also change their privacy settings later and take the content down,” said Zuckerberg in a Q&A session on the newly launched Facebook Graph Search last week.

The idea that Google would not be able to respond to updates like this with the speed that Facebook would like, seemed to be the main bone of contention between the two organisations.

In the midst of these wrangles between internet giants, the European Commission is trying to update EU data protection laws to make them applicable in the Internet age. A draft was presented by European Commissioner for Justice Vivian Reding at the beginning of 2012. At the time Reding was talking about the “right to be forgotten” for users who post their data on social platforms. A completed draft of the new data protection laws is expected to be voted on in April or May of this year.

Another wrinkle that further complicates the current state of play is that a modified draft of the proposed EU data protection laws has been submitted by Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green Party member. Albrecht proposes that social networks should let users move information “from one platform to another” and that users should also be able to obtain details of what data companies hold on them, free of charge.

If these proposals were to come to pass, the impact on Facebook, especially, would be huge. Facebook’s ubiquity creates what is known as a network effect, where the more users that are on Facebook, the more valuable Facebook becomes to each of those users. The connections between the users are what makes the site work. If these connections could be somehow abstracted from the Facebook platform and exported, the dissemination of users could be devastating.

However, with the usual lobbying and pressure groups and the amount of special interests involved, it would be wrong to presume that all of these proposals will make it into law. That said, with both Zuckerberg and the EU commission talking about our “right to be forgotten” as a key issue, we can perhaps look forward to having out own personal “memory hole” where all of our internet sins can disappear.

Further reading:

Spiegel Online: Data Protection: All You Need to Know about the EU Privacy Debate

The Guardian: Facebook Graph Search: Zuckerberg reveals origin of Google privacy rift

RTE: Data Protection Commissioner to audit all major social media firms in Ireland

Bloomberg Business Week: Facebook, Google May Face Tougher EU Curbs on Data Usage

Silicon Republic: Almost half of Ireland is now on Facebook, reveals

Social Bakers: Ireland Facebook Statistics

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