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


Facebook has asked its independent Oversight Board to rule on how it should handle private user information, including residential address information and whether or not it should be shown on the social media platform. This is a fascinating issue, especially in light of recent legal challenges involving data scraping from social media.


Facebook does not allow users to post some private information, such as residence addresses, which is in violation of our Community Standards' guideline on Privacy Violations and Image Privacy Rights. Facebook has asked the board for feedback on this issue because we believe it is important and difficult because it creates a conflict between our values of voice and safety. Residential addresses can be a valuable resource for journalism, civic activity, and other forms of public dialogue. However, disclosing this information without consent might put a person's safety at danger and violate their privacy.

The dispute boils down to whether Facebook has a legal obligation to keep such information secret, especially if the same information is publicly available elsewhere. For example, the above-mentioned regulation prevents me from posting my friend's residential address on Facebook, but anyone may simply look it up using other resources. Is Facebook then obligated to remove such content, or does it have some leeway because of the larger access? Facebook is particularly asking the Board to establish what kind of responsibility Facebook may have in this area, and whether that obligation may extend to, for instance, links to articles that may also contain such information.

Should Facebook erase personal data that is widely available, such as in the news, government records, or the dark web? That is, does the availability on Facebook of publicly available but personal information pose a greater risk of identity theft, requiring Facebook to remove the information, which could include removing news articles that publish such information or individual posts of publicly available government records?

This could include local newsletters and other publications that feature the editors' contact information. Is this a breach of Facebook's terms of service? Should all links containing such information be blocked on Facebook? There are a number of scenarios in which this could pose a problem for Facebook's moderation teams, which is why the company is seeking a more firm verdict.

And, as previously mentioned, this is very similar to the legal justification that job analytics firm hiQ Labs used in its data scraping case against LinkedIn, claiming that the information it gleans from LinkedIn is actually publicly available, and thus accessing it does not violate user rights or LinkedIn policies. LinkedIn is attempting to block hiQ Labs from using its platform.

That makes this an intriguing and potentially crucial issue for the Oversight Board to investigate, as well as a useful test of the Board's ability to rule on such processes and how it may help Facebook consolidate its policy approach. If it can provide a more certain path forward on this, it may be sent to the Board for more policy decisions; however, if it fails to achieve a clear resolution, it may raise issues about its viability. Facebook said it will evaluate and publicly respond to the proposals within 30 days after the board makes its decision.

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