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Digital Privacy: An Open Letter To Sheryl Sandberg & Ben Rooney.

Apr 22 2013

Facebook sheryl sandberg

Dear Ms. Sandberg & Mr. Rooney:

I would like to address with you the April 19 blog post entitled "Facebook Understands Europe's Privacy Fears Says Sandberg" published on the WSJ's "Tech Europe" blog.

In the blog post in question, Ms. Sandberg is attributed the following quotes by Mr. Rooney:

"Far from not understanding European sensitivities to privacy Facebook has become a global leader in technology to help internet users safeguard their privacy and control exactly who can see their personal information."


“I believe there is a perception and fear that because we are American we don’t take privacy as seriously as Europeans do.”

Setting aside Ms. Sandberg's rather fanciful claim regarding Facebook's "leadership" role in privacy and data protection for a moment, I would like to address her proposed explanation for the deep distrust Europeans have generally of Facebook and its data collection practices. While cultural differences, as Ms. Sandberg suggests, might be one way of explaining this deep distrust, I would like to suggest that Facebook's credibility problem in Europe (and beyond) may in fact be due to a number of other considerations which neither Ms. Sandberg nor Mr. Rooney bothered to address.

I don't think it would be unreasonable to suggest for instance that Europe's deep distrust of Facebook might stem from the fact that the company's entire business model is built on its ability to collect and exploit people's personal information unfettered by data collection and privacy protection laws. In fact, so crucial is FB's continued ability to stockpile and exploit its users' personal data that on pages 17-20 of it's IPO prospectus, the company lists as one of the key risks to its business "U.S. and foreign laws and regulations regarding privacy, data protection, and other matters." FB also lists "Unfavorable publicity regarding, for example, our privacy practices (…)" as another key risk to its business interests.

Another potential explanation might be the fact that in anticipation of the debate over consumer privacy legislation in the U.S., Facebook recruited several high profiled lobbyists including former deputy White House chief of staff Joel Kaplan, a man widely credited with helping President George W. Bush's administration successfully shepherd the highly invasive Patriot Act through Congress. Moreover, Facebook along with Google and other Silicon Valley giants, is currently engaged in similar efforts to stymie proposed European legislation that would strengthen privacy protections for European consumers.

Yet another possible explanation might be the fact that while virtually each new feature rolled out by Facebook has been designed to encourage people to "share" more and more personal information, each new change to its privacy policy has to date been designed to water down users' privacy protections.

Or, another potential explanation might be that over the course of Facebook's short history, it has already garnered a truly impressive list of class action suits and investigations by public bodies relating to its privacy and data collection practices including at least one instance where the company settled a complaint relating to the deception of customers and the violation of U.S. federal law.

Or, stll another possible explanation could be that while Facebook once claimed that it wasn't tracking users across the Web after they had logged out of their accounts, it subsequently admitted that it had and moreover, it was later revealed that Facebook had applied for and received a patent on technology enabling it to do just that.

I could go on and point out in response to Ms. Sandberg's claim that the Irish Data Protection Commissioner declared the company to be in compliance with data collection practices, that she conveniently left out the fact the Irish DPC's decision is currently facing legal challenge by an Austrian data protection group called Europe v. Facebook but that might be overkill on my part.

Of course, Ms. Sandberg as Facebook's COO has a significant financial interest in the company's viability which might account for her rather rosy portrayal of FB's record on privacy and data collection practices (even though in this case, her account sounds more like outright fantasy than positive spin). The real travesty is the fact that Mr. Rooney, a journalist and editor, actually thought this post was fit to be published at all. It has me wondering whether the blog post is in fact sponsored content courtesy of Facebook's public relations department. If it is indeed sponsored content, shame on you Mr. Rooney for failing to disclose it to WSJ's readers. If it's not, shame on you for publishing such an egregiously shoddy piece of journalism.


The Luxe Chronicles


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The Luxe Chronicles is a collection of interviews, profiles and musings on various aspects of the luxury industry and occasionally, a rant on our celebrity obsessed culture and the dumbing down of our collective sense of style and esthetic.

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