Policy Politics Privacy

How will Brexit affect digital privacy in the UK?

Brexit has been one big chaotic mess, but there are some beneficiaries of the madness. Facebook is one of them. It was reported yesterday that the tech corporation—which is currently getting hammered from all directions by major lawsuits—is going to move all of its UK users into agreements with its corporate headquarters in California.

Previously, users in Britain were set up with the company’s Euro headquarters in Ireland, which meant they were under the purview of the European Union and its robust privacy laws. As Ireland is still a member of the EU, many of the legal agreements it had with the UK are changing or ending altogether, and Facebook is taking advantage of that. (So is Google, for that matter. I haven’t used Google in ages. There are plenty of alternatives. For instance, when I’m looking for an NDIS provider finder, I use DuckDuckGo.)

In a statement to Reuters, Facebook’s UK branch confirmed that it was shifting British users to the California framework, but insisted rather unconvincingly that user privacy would not be affected.

“Like other companies, Facebook has had to make changes to respond to Brexit and will be transferring legal responsibilities and obligations for UK users from Facebook Ireland to Facebook Inc,” Facebook said. “There will be no change to the privacy controls or the services Facebook offers to people in the UK.”

Users in the UK will still be governed by that country’s privacy regime, which is similar to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But “people familiar with the company” told Reuters that Facebook is motivated by a desire to get out from under the GDPR’s restrictions. Among other things, the GDPR places limitations on how much data can be shared between Europe and the US.

The concern now is that London, in order to secure an attractive trade deal with Washington, will relax its own privacy laws to enable a freer exchange of information, opening up users to all manner of violations. Jim Killock, executive director of the UK-based Open Rights Group, remarked upon the danger inherent in such a development. “The bigger the company,” he explained, “the more personal data they hold, the more they are likely to be subject to surveillance duties or requirements to hand over data to the US government.”

The shift goes into effect next year; shortly after, Facebook will notify users via an update to its terms of service.

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Facebook extends more tentacles into UK economy

Facebook is reportedly going to bring in 1,000 employees from London, mostly for product development and safety purposes, bringing the tech/surveillance/censorship company’s UK workforce to more than 4,000. According to Reuters, most of the new jobs will be tech-related—e.g. software engineering and data science. The rest will be part of Facebook’s “community integrity” squad, whose job it is to “remove harmful content from platforms like Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.” “Community integrity” is an interesting euphemism for censorship. (See here.)

Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the company was satisfied with Prime Minister Boorish Johnson’s attempts to address its Brexit-related concerns.

“The Johnson government has been very clear about what that looks like,” Mendelsohn said, “and so we will continue to invest here in London.”

Boorish is happy about it:

“We are committed to making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, alongside being one of the best places for technology companies to be based.”

As Reuters reports, Facebook is taking measures to rehabilitate itself after the Cambridge Analytica mess, in which a third party company was able to collect private information from millions of Facebook users without their consent. Facebook didn’t address, or even divulge, the massive breach until it was called out by several news outlets. Zuckerberg eventually agreed to testify about the scandal in front of the US Congress, giving a decidedly robotic performance.

“We also understand that this [securing user data] is an ongoing important conversation—we want to be part of that conversation,” Mendelsohn said in a boilerplate statement. “We want to be working with policymakers in this area to get to thoughtful policy.”

She proceeded to boast, based on Facebook’s own reading of a study by Copenhagen Economics, that the company has created more than 3 million jobs in Europe.

Given less attention is Facebook’s ability to eliminate jobs. Here’s an example. In 2016, Inc. Magazine named Render Media the second fastest-growing media company in the United States. Two years later Render Media announced that it was going out of business.

“In a note to clients, Render Media blamed changes to Facebook’s branded content guidelines, which led it to no longer support its partner publishing network with articles,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “The spokeswoman for the company also said that the social media site’s recent news feed algorithm tweak contributed to the decision, among other factors.”

Render isn’t the only casualty:

“The branded content changes, along with a related tweak to Facebook’s news feed algorithm that reduces the amount of content from publishers in favor of posts from friends and family, have stymied companies that rely heavily on traffic from Facebook to prop up their businesses. Earlier this year, the female-focused digital publisher LittleThings closed its doors, after the news feed change caused its traffic to plummet by 75%.”