Facebook says it really cares about your privacy this time, honest

Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference is supposed to be a showcase for all the cool new features that the giant social network is either working on or busy rolling out to its two billion users — filters that turn your Instagram selfie into a picture of a dog, and so on. But not surprisingly, given all the furore over the Cambridge Analytica data leak and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony before a Congress subcommittee, the latest iteration of the Facebook love-fest started on a somewhat different note.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, Zuckerberg tried to crack a joke when introducing a new feature that would allow users to follow along with and chat about a movie or TV show.  “Let’s say your friend is testifying before Congress and you want to watch,” the Facebook CEO joked, with a somewhat awkward-looking smile. On a more serious note, however, he suggested that he has learned a few things about how the social network can be used for evil as well as good. “I’ve learned this year that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility,” he said. “It’s not enough to just build powerful tools. We need to make sure that they are used for good.”

The Facebook CEO also announced a new feature that the company said would enable users to block Facebook from tracking their behavior on the web and through apps with Facebook access.The new feature is called “Clear History,” and operates much like a feature in most web browsers of the same name: When clicked, it removes all of the data related to that user that is normally stored — data used by Facebook to help its algorithms figure out what you might be interested in, and what ads to show you (Zuckerberg pointed out that if you do enable this feature “Facebook won’t be as good” until it gets to know you again).

This and other new privacy-related features the social network is rolling out aren’t coming about solely because Facebook was raked over the coals in front of Congress, nor even because it is embarrassed by the data leak involving Cambridge Analytica. One of the main driving forces behind the latest changes is the need to comply with the European General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, which is coming into effect later this month. These new rules require platforms like Google and Facebook to give users a lot more control over who has their data and what they can do with it, or face significant financial penalties.

In his testimony before Congress, the Facebook CEO was asked whether he planned to extend GDPR-like protections to even non-European users of the social network, and he hedged his answer, saying some of the details were still to be worked out. The “Clear History” feature appears to be part of his attempt to introduce enough privacy protections to satisfy regulators without actually impacting Facebook’s business in any significant way — in other words, to eat his cake and have it too.

Here are some more links related to Facebook’s ongoing struggles with privacy:

  • In a blog post published just before the F8 conference, Zuckerberg talked about the new “Clear History” feature and how it works. “When you clear your cookies in your browser, it can make parts of your experience worse,” he noted. “You may have to sign back in to every website, and you may have to reconfigure things. The same will be true here. Your Facebook won’t be as good.”
  • Wired described in a recent piece how some critics believe both Google and Facebook are trying to implement the GDPR rules in a way that allows them to “game the system,” leaving users no better off than they were before. The supervisor of the EU’s data protection authority called the online platforms  “digital sweat factories” whose approach to privacy is unsustainable, and said that their proposals for meeting the new rules violate the spirit of the new regulations.
  • Some believe the new GDPR rules and other privacy-related regulations that emerge following the Cambridge Analytica leak could actually reinforce the power that Facebook and Google have, since it will make it more difficult for other companies to acquire data or use it to build new services. That would effectively build a wall around the data that Google and Facebook already have, argues tech analyst Ben Thompson in his subscription newsletter Stratechery.
  • Facebook also appears to be restructuring itself behind the scenes in order to reduce its legal liability under the GDPR: It is moving the responsibility for data involving all non-EU users — who represent about 70 percent of the total, or about 1.5 billion — to its US subsidiary from its Irish subsidiary, meaning they will be governed by US laws on data, not the GDPR.

Other notable stories:

  • A group called the Student Press Coalition did a survey of student journalists at 49 Christian colleges and universities and found that more than 75 percent  had faced pressure from university personnel to change, edit, or remove an article after it had been published in print or online. About 70 percent said their faculty advisors could stop a story from being printed.
  • According to a memo obtained by Variety, staffers at NBC were told by management that if they reported the sexual harassment accusations against veteran broadcaster Tom Brokaw, they had to also mention the letter of support for the former anchor that was signed by more than 60 employees of the network — some of whom suggested that they felt pressure to sign.
  • The fallout from the White House Correspondents Association dinner continues: The Hill, a site that focuses on stories about Washington politics, said it is pulling out of the event because it “casts our profession in a poor light,” and The New York Times says CBS News also considered pulling out, but changed its mind after being assured that event organizers planned to change the format.
  • Speaking of the WHCA dinner, CJR’s Karen Ho dug into the finances of the event, and found that last year, the organization raised a total of almost $900,000 from ticket sales and donations for the event. About $550,000 of that went to pay for the venue and the entertainer, and only about $100,000 went towards the scholarships that the WHCA says are the main reason it does the dinner in the first place.
  • Politico writes about the growing number of  news websites catering to a right-wing audience, which it calls “baby Breitbarts,” including sites with names like the Tennessee Star, the Arizona Monitor and the Maine Examiner — sites that sound like reputable newspapers but which in most cases are online-only publications that exist primarily to promote a right-wing agenda.

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