Countries around the world are getting tougher on privacy regulation. And Facebook is moving to steer the debate so the rules are written on its terms.
The social network Wednesday released its latest white paper, a 29-page document calling current privacy practices and laws “insufficient.” The company says the paper is intended to spark greater debate about how the tech industry can inform people about its use of their data – and move beyond convoluted privacy policies or notifications about cookies that pop up so frequently they make people’s eyes glaze over.
“I think we can all agree that obviously policies are probably not the best way of communicating about privacy,” said Rob Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, told me in an interview.”But also there’s little consensus on how to do that.”
The company lays out in the paper some of the tensions it sees for businesses and regulators on privacy issues. On the one hand the company gets criticism that these policies are too long, Sherman says, but it’s also trying to ensure it’s making all the disclosures required to under a complex web of international laws and regulations.
The paper calls for greater collaboration between regulators and companies to develop and test new ways for people to learn more about the use of their data by the giant social media platform, which has been criticized – especially surrounding Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 election – when third parties improperly obtained data of Facebook users without their knowledge.
Facebook is trying to shape itself as more privacy friendly.
The company was required to make major changes to its business in the year since it reached a historic $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission to end a privacy investigation. Now Facebook is hoping its forced education in improving privacy can be useful to policy advocates and regulators.
“Hopefully some of that is useful to policymakers as they’re making decisions about how to regulate privacy,” Sherman said. “Our goal is not to try to write a law that would regulate us. There are other people that will do that. We want to certainly be a part of the discussion and give our perspective on what we think makes sense and how it would work in practice and in our environment.”
Given its spotty track record on privacy, the company is facing an uphill battle in rebuilding relationships with regulators and consumer advocates. But Sherman says Facebook has aggressively invested and hired privacy experts over the last year, adding every new product the company builds now goes through a comprehensive privacy review.
“Culturally it’s become very clear across Facebook that privacy is something that is essentially important for business,” Sherman told me. “If people don’t trust us to safeguard their data, they won’t feel comfortable using our services.”
Facebook’s report arrives as countries around the world, including Australia, are cracking down on data collection. California began enforcing its new state privacy law earlier this month, which could reinvigorate the privacy debate in the United States.
This isn’t the first time that Facebook released a white paper. The company published one earlier this year on content moderation, another contentious issue in Washington.
The coronavirus pandemic could create new privacy challenges.
Facebook was planning to release the paper before the coronavirus pandemic intensified when privacy issues were a greater focus on the presidential campaign trail and on Capitol Hill. But now the debate is shifting, especially as data plays a critical role in the coronavirus response and people are spending more time using online services while staying at home.
One recent bipartisan privacy proposal, which The Washington Post’s Tony Romm detailed, aimed to ensure new digital tools meant to combat the coronavirus don’t come at the expense of user privacy.
Sherman says the pandemic is testing some of the company’s transparency and privacy work, especially as the platform seeks ways to use its data for the coronavirus response. The social network has had to communicate with users about some of its new covid-19 tools, such as providing aggregated data about its users to public health officials about the virus’s spread. The company is also working with Carnegie Mellon researchers to gather covid-19 symptom data.
“There’s also a really core responsibility that comes along with that, both to use data responsibly and also to communicate effectively with people about how their data is being used,” Sherman said.