Facebook’s Photo Tagging Auto-Suggestion Feature: Another Silly Privacy Moral Panic

by on June 8, 2011 · 16 comments

Facebook announced yesterday that it had finished most of the global roll-out, begun in the U.S. last December. Now ZDNet reports that European Privacy regulators are already planning a probe of this. Emil Protalinski writes:

“Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people’s prior consent and it can’t be activated by default,” Gerard Lommel, a Luxembourg member of the so-called Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, told BusinessWeek. Such automatic tagging “can bear a lot of risks for users” and the group of European data protection officials will “clarify to Facebook that this can’t happen like this.”

No doubt our friends at the Extra-Paternalist Internet Cops (EPIC) will jump into the fray with another of their many complaints to the FTC, dripping with outrage that Facebook has “opted us into” this feature. But what’s the big deal, really?  Emil explains how things work:

When you upload new photos, Facebook uses software similar to that found in many photo editing tools to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in. Similar photos are grouped together and, whenever possible, Facebook suggests the name(s) your friend(s) in the photos. In other words, the square that magically finds faces in a photo now suggests names of your Facebook friends to streamline the tagging process, especially with the same friends in multiple uploaded photos.

Lifehacker explains how easy it is for Facebook users to opt-out of having their friends seeing the automatically generated suggestion to tag their face (as Facebook did  in its own announcement):

  1. Head your Privacy Settings and click on Customize Settings.
  2. Scroll down to the “Suggest Photos of Me to Friends” setting and hit “Edit Settings”.
  3. In the drop-down on the right, hit “Disable”.

See the screenshots here. So, in short: The feature that’s upsetting the privacy regulationistas is a feature that saves us time and effort in tagging our friends in photos we upload—unless our friends have opt-outed of having their photos auto-suggested.

Just think about all the time users spent tagging their friends photo by photo—and the value lost from all the photos that aren’t tagged because they’re just not worth tagging. That’s exactly why Google’s Picasa photo management software has been using precisely this feature for some time—with nary a peep from the privacy regulationistas. Tagging is pro-user in a number of ways:

  • It’s actually pro-privacy! When you’re tagged in a photo, you get an email or an on-site notification telling you a friend has uploaded a photo of you to the site, giving you at least the opportunity to ask that person—your friend, after all—not just to remove the tag, but potentially to remove the photo, or to limit its visibility. Without tagging, you might never know the photo was on the site!
  • Tagging facilitates dialogue among friends about shared experiences.
  • It creates a sort of annotated phot0-diary of our lives. It’s easy to trivialize this, but over time, I think people will increasingly come to think of photos they and their friends and loved ones have been tagged in as the modern-day equivalents of their photo albums.

Now, if Facebook were automatically placing these tags on photos we uploaded, I could understand why some users would be upset.  But what’s the problem with making it easier for users to tag their friends? Facebook has apologized in comments to the BBC, saying: “We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them.” It’s probably true that Facebook could do more to inform—or remind—privacy-sensitive users how to opt-out of features like this one or otherwise increase their privacy settings. For example, perhaps a quarterly reminder to all users about privacy controls could help to allay concerns that users don’t appreciate how protect their own privacy? And whenever launching new products, the company really should do more to flag changes clearly in a very direct way to users.

But I’m not sure any amount of prior explanation would have satisfied the privacy worrywarts at EPIC and and in Europe.

A Right Not to Be Mentioned?

Re-read Monsieur Lommel’s statement carefully: “Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people’s prior consent and it can’t be activated by default.”  His second concern, again, seems misplaced here: tags are being “activated” only when the user who uploads photos chooses to activate them.  But think carefully about his first claim: Should tags really “happen” based on prior consent from everyone we tagged?  How would tagging work on Facebook if, every time a user uploaded photos, and tagged their friends, each tagged friend had to grant “prior consent” for each tag to appear?

Lommel is essentially arguing for a “Right not to be mentioned (without prior consent)”—a close cousin of the so-called “Right to be Forgotten.”  Sound crazy? It is, but it’s also the logical extension of the dangerous conception of privacy as a “fundamental human right” to, as free speech scholar put it so brilliantly a decade ago, “Stop People from Speaking About You”—the title of his superb 1999 law review article. In other words, this is privacy as censorship. It is, as Eugene noted, a dangerous idea, one fundamentally inconsistent with an open society in which we are free to observe and comment on the world around us. See Adam Thierer’s excellent post on these issues in the context of “forgetting” (i.e., mandatory deletion!).

The Alternative to Regulation: User Empowerment

In the end, features like auto-suggesting tagging will roll out because the vast majority of users find them incredibly useful and they increase the richness of user experience. EPIC and many Europeans seem intent on, as National Review once put it (at William F Buckley’s most reactionary moment in his rhetoric), “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop!”  That’s what the opt-in obsession ultimately boils down to.

I can certainly understand that some users might not want their friends to tag them in certain photos (imagine the embarrassing or unflattering photo of last night’s drunken revelries). But that doesn’t mean Facebook shouldn’t use auto-suggestions—or that we should accept the European “Right Not to Be Mentioned.”

Instead, we should recognize the many layers of user empowerment and other forces at work here to to protect our privacy. That’s explained pretty well in the dialogue box that appears when users change their privacy setting to turn off the auto-suggestion feature:

You’re always in control of your tags on Facebook:

  • Only friends can tag you in photos
  • We’ll notify you when a friend has tagged you
  • You can remove a friend’s tag at any time
  • Tag suggestions are based only on photos you’ve allowed yourself to be tagged in

Update: Marc Rotenberg, President of EPIC, is already hard at work to stop this dastardly innovation because, after all, data is dangerous!

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