7:48 am Jun. 10, 2011
Maybe your Facebook friends’ status updates already have implored you to “change your settings!” but you haven't yet done the work of unraveling why bloggers are screaming about the social network's supposed imitation of Minority Report. Its new feature, called “Tag Suggestions,” uses facial recognition technology to promote tagging of photos.
Now, when someone uploads a photo to Facebook, the site will compare it to other tagged photos of the user’s friends. If it finds a possible match, Tag Suggestions will prompt the user to add the same tag to the new photo. Implementation began in December, but only recently rolled out worldwide.
Given Facebook's long history with privacy issues, none of the bad reaction should come as a surprise. But it seems Facebook didn’t expect it.
It's exasperating. For years, we have seen this exact sequence of events when Facebook introduces new features: a rollout, followed by a backlash, followed by an apology and sometimes a retreat (remember Beacon?).
We've now reached the Apology Stage in the current drama, with Facebook spokespersons admitting that the company mishandled introduction of the new feature. And here, as in the past, it's especially puzzling because I think "Tag Suggestions" actually sounds quite useful and raises few legitimate privacy objections.
The site will not tag photos automatically. It will only suggest tags (hence the name) when it finds a possible match with one of the user's friends, based on comparison with photos of that friend that are already tagged. Just as before, the user must actually do the tagging. And just as before, the user's friends get notice of the tag and can remove it.
Finally, anyone can disable the feature entirely, so that Facebook never makes those tagging suggestions to your friends in the first place.
This isn’t Minority Report, it’s auto-complete. Facebook already proposes tags when I name friends in textual status updates. This is no different. Once someone tags my photo, it shows up on my page—and my friends get to see me. I have fairly stringent privacy controls on my Facebook account, but I see no reason to disable this feature.
Perhaps there is an argument that Facebook should ask users to opt in to Tag Suggestions voluntarily, rather than turning it on by default. But since the benefit of convenience goes to the user uploading photos, not the one who gets identified, there may not be a lot of incentive to check the box.
I imagine that’s just how the engineers at Facebook saw it too—and that was a pretty big mistake.
The problem is not with Tag Suggestions, but with Facebook's maddening tendency to seek forgiveness rather than permission. Why not roll out the feature with a little splash screen or a box at the top of the home page, clearly explaining their most recent innovation and linking to the opt-out? Instead, they sneak up on users with a new feature that sounds more creepy than it is. For those inclined to be suspicious of every move Facebook makes—including huge swaths of the press and the blogging world—this approach only seems to confirm their worst fears.
Look, News Feed turned out to be a brilliant feature too, but just because you are right doesn't mean you should be condescending (as in this notable post from "Zuck" himself) or take users by surprise. If the company's leaders would just learn to roll these things out with greater transparency, less hubris, and more sensitivity to privacy concerns, they could probably introduce exactly the same functionality with little fuss.
Looking back on my own blogging, I see that I was already frustrated by this pattern over two years ago, when Facebook changed its terms of service and the exact same sequence played out. Like Tag Suggestions, I thought the changes in the terms of service were basically unobjectionable. What I said then is even more true today:
[Repeated privacy controversies] display a pervasive failure to understand the importance of privacy to users, and indeed a real detachment from user sentiment. Every time this happens, Facebook apologizes but seems mystified (and perhaps a little peeved) that users just didn’t understand that the company meant to help us. ... By their failure to anticipate a backlash, they unnecessarily undermined user trust and gathered a whole bunch of bad media attention. ... That’s the third time this has happened, Facebook. Do you get the message yet?
Answer: no, and they still don't get it.
Instead, here we get the usual tone deaf post on the Facebook Blog with its familiar cocktail of marketing claptrap ("tagged photos help you and your friends relive everything from that life-altering skydiving trip to a birthday dinner where the laughter never stopped"), ineffective reassurances ("By making tagging easier than before, you're more likely to know right away when friends post photos"), and maybe a soupcon of defensiveness because the world doesn't simply trust Facebook, when all they want is to help us share and connect.
Last week, I participated in a meeting at Facebook headquarters, where the Future of Privacy Forum's Advisory Board discussed privacy with some of the company's leaders. (Facebook headquarters, by the way, is exactly what you expect: young, casual, open plan, with a free cafeteria that feels exactly like a higher-quality college dining hall.)
I signed a really long nondisclosure agreement, even though I didn't learn anything that's not completely public information. But I can tell you this: I got a lot of insight into corporate attitudes.
The lingo they used was noteworthy: it's all about “sharing” and “connecting” there. They talk about "control" rather than "privacy" (presumably unaware of the raging scholarly debate over the extent to which "privacy" is analogous to individual control over personal information). And I bet many of them never considered the possibility that the sharing should start with them.
More by this author:
- Letter from St. Paul: On Rick Santorum, and Minnesota's love of zany outliers
- Why Al Franken's Senate subcommittee should give Netflix a hard time about 'always-on' Facebook integration