Facebook exec makes security promises, drowns in irony

Mission to reassure EU on privacy rerouted through Chinanet

Facebook wants its customers to know it respects their privacy, is doing everything it can to protect that privacy, will do even more to protect their privacy and doesn't want to be the target of "shoot the messenger" reactions when that privacy is violated. "There is an increasing trend that where people are uncomfortable about content," according to Richard Allan, the company's European Union director of policy said in a seminar at the Westminster Media Forum Tuesday. "They're not necessarily going to the source of that content, but they're going to those places where the content is shared or indexed and asking them to resolve the problem."

(Allan gets around, especially on this topic. Here he is speaking on U.N. panel March 4 called "Internet Freedom: Promoting Human Rights in the Digital Age.")

As far as I can tell about Allan's don't-shoot-the-messenger comment is that Facebook isn't the source of privacy violations, it's only the conduit.

People who feel their privacy is violated aren't mad at the people who post private information about themselves on the internet (usually themselves). They're mad at the places where that information is shared.

That would mean Facebook, where people post potentially embarrassing information that is then taken out of context and out of their control when Friends, or Friends of Friends, or people who are Friends of people Tagged in embarrassing photos are able to take information posted for a small group of friends and broadcast it to the world at large?

Is that what you meant, Richard? That it's not appropriate for people to get mad at the site that gives them too few controls over their own content and too little chance to delete it when it becomes embarrassing?

Actually, forget it.

That sounds like a very interesting conversation about privacy, copyright, the right of a service provider to use other people's valuable data for its own purposes and lots of other things.

But I can't have that discussion today.

I'm overwhelmed by the irony that you were probably talking about Facebook's efforts to protect privacy at exactly the moment all the (unencrypted) traffic to Facebook was being re-routed through servers owned by China Telecommunications, the state-owned, secret-police-monitored Chinese national ISP.

I'm also overwhelmed by how specific the traffic redirection was – taking traffic only from AT&T subscribers to Facebook -- especially following several incidents last year in which 15 percent of the Internet swept through China rather than along its normal courses. In November U.S. foreign relations committee concluded was a purposeful act of espionage and possibly cyberwar.

Allan obviously has a tough job -- being chief public advocate of privacy for a company whose business model is built on violating it. Facebook has made some improvements, and people should know about them: clearer privacy control options, SSL and HTTPS connections if you know how to get them, more tools to delete content. It's still not perfect, or even good.

Facebook is getting better about privacy, though, and more people should know that.

Maybe someone will post a note about it to the most protected part of their Facebook pages, so the clever network people at China Telecom can enjoy them as well.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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