Why Europe Is Freaking Out About Facebook Photo Recognition

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Facebook not-so-quietly opened an opt-out facial recognition product to everyone except America on Tuesday. Despite loads of misleading headlines on the topic, the feature wasn't really news in the United States, because Facebook had launched the photo-tagging feature here last December and facial recognition technology first appeared as a feature on the site in October. People tend to think facial recognition is rather creepy, so Facebook treated this product with kid gloves. The roll-out happened slowly, only 5% of American users at first and then a gradual build-up to the rest of the network. If the flurry of coverage yesterday is any indication, Facebook's stealth strategy worked at skirting around widespread outrage last year. But not this year.

On Wednesday afternoon, the European Union data-protection regulators announced a probe to investigate whether the social network's new feature violates privacy rules. "Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people’s prior consent and it can’t be activated by default," said a Luxembourg official told Businessweek, adding that the regulators intend to "clarify to Facebook that this can’t happen like this.” And that's a general complaint against Facebook, whose founder believes that the web should be social by default. In addition to the E.U. probe, officials in the United Kingdom and Ireland are looking into this practice.

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A Facebook spokesperson already apologized about the quiet launch. "We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them," a spokesperson said. They also explained, as did some bloggers, that the feature isn't really new. Users have been able to tag their friends in photos for ages, and the new technology only makes that process easier by suggesting friends based on a facial recognition scan. There's no face search that could let a scorned ex-lover find you hanging out at parties. In fact, the only real invasion is one that's existed on Facebook since the inception of photo-tagging; if a friend tags you in a photo, it shows up on your profile by default--you have to untag it manually to remove it. Jason Kincaid sums it up, "In other words, it isn't a new issue, and it isn't related to facial recognition at all."

However, the probe does provide a fantastic illustration of what The Atlantic's John Hendel called "The West's Coming Internet War." Reflecting on the United Nations' declaration last week that the internet access be considered a basic human right, Hendel points out how Europe's notion of privacy diverged dramatically from the American view as long ago as the drafting of the Bill of Rights.

The two cultures had developed for years and a sharp divide emerged as the two countries developed their presences online. The European Union announced intentions to legislate the principles of a "right to be forgotten" in November of 2010 and confirmed these goals this past March. These new laws would allow Europeans to sue transnational Web giants like Facebook and Google into submission to European standards of privacy. Websites like YouTube and Google Maps ran up against the continent's courts. As the EU justice commissioner noted in her March speech: "A U.S.-based social network company that has millions of active users in Europe needs to comply with EU rules."

Inevitably, Facebook is probably moving a little too slowly in building out a team to pre-empt political backlash when new features go live in foreign countries. We noted last month that Facebook was starting to act like a sovereign nation, recruiting "ambassadors" to work closely with senior government officials. Slate's Cyrus Farivar's has also suggested "foreign countries ...send diplomats to Facebook."

If nothing else, this could be a leg up for Google in the social space they've failed to figure out. Even though they own patents to facial recognition technology, Eric Schmidt says it's "unlikely" they'll put it to use any time soon.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.