There’s a hubbub brewing over privacy and Facebook in Germany — and, not for the first time, there’s misinformation involved. So I got on the phone to Facebook to get technical facts.
First, the news: Thilo Weichert, head of the office for data protection in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, issued a press release (conveniently translated into English) attacking and essentially outlawing the Facebook “Like” button on sites, telling them to take down the button — and, oddly, their fan pages — and threatening them with 50,000€ fines. He declared that “Like” violates German and European law because it sends data about users back to Facebook in the U.S. He went so far as to advise German users not to click on “Like” and even not to set up Facebook accounts.
I contacted Facebook and just spoke with the head of the platform, Carl Sjogreen, and the chief European spokesman, Stefano Hesse, to understand what really happens. This is what Sjogreen said:
Obviously, when you click on a “Like” button, you are telling the world you like something and so, of course, your identity and your affection are recorded and published at Facebook. If you are signed into Facebook when you visit a site with the “Like” button, obviously, Facebook’s servers will act on knowing who you are because it will tell you which of your friends also publicly liked this site.
In the case Weichert seems to be aiming at, If you are not signed into Facebook, your IP address will be sent back to Facebook but then your IP address is sent back to the servers of Google+ buttons, comment systems, and ads of all types. “That’s how browsers work,” Sjogreen said. “We don’t use that information in any way to create a profile for the user, as has been alleged here.”
Facebook send sites data in aggregate so they can see, for example, click-through rates for the “Like” button in various pages. Facebook erases IP data after 90 days. It does something else to further anonymize I hope to tell you about later.
“The only time ‘Like’ button information is associated with a particular person is when you are signed into Facebook and click,” Sjogreen said.
I see no violation of privacy, no sneaky stealing of user information worthy of this action and press release – which, by the way, Weichert issued without taking to Facebook. Indeed, Hesse told me that Facebook has been working with Weichert’s counterpart in Hamburg and that that office, he says, is pleased with what Facebook is doing.
But Weichert is a grandstander. I saw that first-hand when I debated him in a panel set up by the Green party in Berlin, where he attacked not only Google but his constituents — the people he is supposedly trying to protect — who use it: “As long as Germans are stupid enough to use this search engine,” he spat, “they don’t deserve any better.” He went farther, comparing Google with China and Iran. “Google’s only interest is to earn money,” he said, as if shocked. That theme continues in his Facebook attack, where he complains that the company is worth more than $50 billion. No, he’s not from the Communist part.
Earlier today, I went to search GoogleNews for “Facebook” and “Schleswig-Holstein” to find news on the event but found something else interesting, which I discussed — to considerable controversy — in a Google+ post: A politician from Schleswig-Holstein just resigned in shame after confessing to an affair via Facebook with a 16-year-old girl. To me, there’s an obvious paradox there: Aren’t government officials trying first to protect the privacy and thus safety of our young people? Yet here is a government official exploiting a young girl via Facebook. Facebook is not the threat here; the government official is. In my earlier post, I said that in some states in the U.S., this would be statutory rape. Much upset ensued. But I still don’t get it. Who’s protecting whom from whom?
This is why I focused so much on Germany in my book, Public Parts, because it is grappling with privacy and technology in ways that are similar to other cultures, only amplified and skewed.
In any case, I wanted to get to the facts here and that’s why I’m posting this.