Facebook Seeks Oversight Board Advice on What Qualifies as 'Private' User Information


This is an interesting case, particularly in light of the most recent legal cases around data scraping from social networks.

Today, Facebook has asked its independent Oversight Board to provide a ruling on how it should handle private user information – specifically, residential address info and if/how it may be displayed on Facebook.

As explained by Facebook:

“Facebook does not allow users to post certain private information, including information on residential addresses, which violates our policy on Privacy Violations and Image Privacy Rights as laid out in our Community Standards. Facebook has requested guidance on this policy from the board because we found it significant and difficult as it creates tension between our values of voice and safety. Access to residential addresses can be an important tool for journalism, civic activism, and other public discourse. However, exposing this information without consent can also create a risk to an individual’s safety and infringe on privacy.”

The core of the case comes down to what obligation Facebook has to keep such information private, particularly if that same information is publicly available elsewhere.

For example, I can’t post my friend’s residential address in a Facebook post under the above-mentioned policy, but anybody could easily look this up via other sources. Does Facebook then have an obligation to remove such, or is there a level of flexibility within that, based on broader access?

More specifically, Facebook is also asking the Board to determine what level of obligation Facebook may have on this, and whether that could extend to, say, links to articles which might also include such information.

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“Should Facebook remove personal information despite its public availability, for example in news media, government records, or the dark web? That is, does the availability on Facebook of publicly available but personal information create a heightened safety risk that compels Facebook to remove the information, which may include removing news articles that publish such information or individual posts of publicly available government records?”

That could mean things like local newsletters and the like, which could include the editors’ contact info. Is that in violation of Facebook’s policy? Should Facebook block all links that include such information?

There are various cases where this could present a challenge for Facebook’s moderation teams, which is why it’s seeking a more definitive ruling.

And as noted, this is also very similar to the legal justification that job analytics company hiQ Labs has used in its data scraping case against LinkedIn, noting that the information that it gleans from LinkedIn is actually publicly available, and therefore it’s not violating user rights, or LinkedIn policies, by accessing such. LinkedIn is seeking to cut off hiQ Labs’ access to its platform. 

That makes this an interesting, and potentially important case for the Oversight Board to examine, while it’ll also be a valuable test of the Board’s capacity to rule on such processes, and how it can work to solidify Facebook’s policy approach. If it can establish a more definitive way forward on such, that could lead to more policy decisions being referred to the Board – but if it fails to reach a clear decision, that could equally raise questions about its viability.

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Facebook says that once the board has handed down its decision, it will consider and publicly respond to the recommendations within 30 days.



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