We’re looking into it

The news is awash with reports that the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is “opening an investigation” into Facebook’s rather creepy research experiment, in conjunction with US universities, in which it apparently altered the users’ news feeds to elicit either positive or negative emotional responses. Thus, the BBC says “Facebook faces UK probe over emotion study”, SC Magazine says “ICO probes Facebook data privacy” and the Financial Times says “UK data regulator probes Facebook over psychological experiment”.

As well as prompting one to question some journalists’ obsession with probes, this also leads one to look at the basis for these stories. It appears to lie in a quote from an ICO spokesman, given I think originally to the online IT news outlet The Register

The Register asked the office of the UK’s Information Commissioner if it planned to probe Facebook following widespread criticism of its motives.

“We’re aware of this issue, and will be speaking to Facebook, as well as liaising with the Irish data protection authority, to learn more about the circumstances,” a spokesman told us.
So, the ICO is aware of the issue and will be speaking to Facebook and to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s office. This doesn’t quite match up to the rather hyperbolic news headlines. And there’s a good reason for this – the ICO is highly unlikely to have any power to investigate, let alone take action. Facebook, along with many other tech/social media companies, has its non-US headquarters in Ireland. This is partly for taxation reasons and partly because of access to high-skilled, relatively low cost labour. However, some companies – Facebook is one, LinkedIn another – have another reason, evidenced by the legal agreements that users enter into: because the agreement is with “Facebook Ireland”, then Ireland is deemed to be the relevant jurisdiction for data protection purposes. And, fairly or not, the Irish data protection regime is generally perceived to be relatively “friendly” towards business.
 
These jurisdictional issues are by no means clear cut – in 2013  a German data protection authority tried to exercise powers to stop Facebook imposing a “real name only” policy.
 
Furthermore, as the Court of Justice of the European Union recognised in the recent Google Spain case, the issue of territorial responsibilities and jurisdiction can be highly complex. The Court held there that, as Google had
 
[set] up in a Member State a branch or subsidiary which is intended to promote and sell advertising space offered by that engine and which orientates its activity towards the inhabitants of that Member State
 
it was processing personal data in that Member State (Spain). Facebook does have a large UK corporate office with some responsibility for sales. It is just possible that this could give the ICO, as domestic data protection authority, some power to investigate. And if or when the draft European General Data Protection Regulation gets passed, fundamental shifts could take place, extending even, under Article 3(2) to bringing data controllers outside the EU within jurisdiction, where they are offering goods or services to (or monitoring) data subjects in the EU.
 
But the question here is really whether the ICO will assert any purported power to investigate, when the Irish DPC is much more clearly placed to do so (albeit it with terribly limited resources). I think it’s highly unlikely, despite all the media reports. In fact, if the ICO does investigate, and it leads to any sort of enforcement action, I will eat my hat*.
 
*I reserve the right to specify what sort of hat
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Filed under Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, enforcement, facebook, journalism, social media, Uncategorized

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