opinion When Facebook privacy advisor Mozelle Thompson accepted an invitation to speak at a roundtable last week held by the Federal Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, he must have known his attendance would be carefully scrutinised in every respect.
After all, for the past year, Facebook has been locked in a swirling maelstrom of increasing pressure and magnitude in Australia as various figures in power have lined up, one after the other, to try and bring the social networking giant to heel.
The company has endured numerous public outcries over the defacing of memorial pages on its site, suffered attacks and entreaties from politicians ranging from Queensland Premier Anna Bligh to federal senators and more, and has been publicly attacked by law enforcement agencies over its reluctance to establish a dedicated local staff member to aid with their enquiries.
Now, we’re not arguing here that the complaints against Facebook in Australia have much legitimacy.
Politicians need to understand that it is not possible to regulate the internet in the same way as other mediums such as newspapers and television, and law enforcement agencies need to understand that Facebook is not their personal database of useful information about the private lives of Australians, that investigators can dip in and out of at will.
But it is the way that Facebook is going about addressing these complaints that really causes I and others to be suspicious of the company and come down on the side of its opponents.
Over the past year Facebook has continually refused to engage at any meaningful level in public with authorities or the Australian press to provide transparency around the way it does business – dealing with enquiries at arm’s length from its California headquarters and keeping the only staff member it is known to have in Australia – sales manager Paul Borrud – locked away behind closed doors.
Thompson’s appearance last week at the Cyber-Safety Committee was no exception.
Very few of the advisor’s answers to any of the questions posed by the parliamentarians in the room divulged any real information as to how Facebook operates. Instead of discussing specifics, the advisor tended to evoke general themes relating to the subject matter being discussed.
For example, when he was asked about recent links between murders and Facebook, Thompson said:
“To start at the beginning, I have worked in the area of dealing with questions about jurisdiction, which is an interesting challenge in the online space because when you deal with jurisdiction there is usually a static response … the other thing is that these problems are real-time problems and Facebook does not want to wait until there is a jurisdictional issue in order to solve them.”
On the question of whether Facebook should have a staff member located in Australia to deal specifically with local law enforcement issues, Thompson said:
“We have considered – I know the company has considered and is considering now – whether it would be helpful to have someone here, but the one caveat I would make is that I would not want anything that would potentially delay or add another layer to a response that could happen directly through California, because that is where the information is and that is where the action has to take place and it happens on a 24-hour basis.”
On the issue of cyber-bullying and the reporting of it on Facebook, Thompson had this to say:
“Probably the best strategy is teaching people how to manage their lives better using these technologies because in my experience—and I testified about this issue before the Congress once—when people start putting in rules about taking something away from a person that means they are going to go to their neighbour’s house, some schoolyard or someplace else and they are going to engage in behaviour where parents do not have any way of supervising what they are doing and they are more likely to engage in more risky behaviour. And some kids actually like that rush.”
To be fair, Thompson did go on to mention some detail about the recent murder of an 18-year-old woman in NSW that was solved “in two and a half hours” with the assistance of Facebook. And we have picked some of the more obtuse examples of his responses from the Senate transcript – at other points the advisor provided more meaningful dialogue.
But in general Thompson’s responses evaded giving any insight into Facebook or how the company uses and gives authorities access to the vast realms of information it holds about Australians’ lives.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Thompson is a former senior bureacrat in the US Treasury … as his answers make it clear, he has clearly learned to respond to all questions with the age-old technique espoused by Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister: Say a lot about nothing.
Now I’m not saying that Facebook needs to completely open the kimono and divulge everything about how it operates.
But it would be nice to see the company making at least token gestures in that area. I have already quit Facebook because of this lack of transparency and ability to hold my trust. And I’m sure many other Australians will gradually follow unless the company becomes more open.
When you hold unimaginable personal details about much of the civilised world, you need to be transparent about how you use that information. Any other approach will eventually see you relegated to the dustbin of corporate history.