Is the EU better at protecting online privacy?

Countries react differently to technology developments that burrow deeper into people’s private lives.

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma/File
In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a sign with Facebook's "Like" logo is posted at Facebook headquarters near the office for the company's User Operations Safety Team in Menlo Park, Calif.

A new Facebook Messenger feature, called “Photo Magic,” will allow the company to access smartphones' camera rolls to find recognizable faces in people's photos so it can encourage them to share the images with their friends.

The feature, which requires Facebook users to opt out if they’re not interested in having their photos scanned by the company, just rolled out in Australia and is expected to become available in more countries soon.

And when it does, Facebook will once again expose how different parts of the world – particularly the United States and European Union countries – react to technological developments that burrow deeper into people’s private lives.

Whether it’s the result of cultural values, different historical experiences, or business rivalry, the US and the EU have very different approaches to data privacy.

“Europe, broadly speaking, sees privacy as a more fundamental issue that requires a higher level of protection,” Susan L. Foster, an attorney and privacy law expert based in London, told The Christian Science Monitor. “They do set the balance a bit differently,” she adds.

Photo Magic is unlikely to be well received in Europe, where the EU staunchly protects data privacy through rules introduced in 1995 that in the coming months will be updated with more comprehensive and stricter regulations.

Facebook first tried to introduce facial recognition on their social network in the EU in 2011, The Guardian points out, but had to remove it when the Irish data protection authority threatened it with tens of thousands in dollars of fines for privacy violations.

The company introduced a less controversial version of the feature in 2014, called “Tag Suggest,” turning facial recognition on only when European users want to tag photos of US users who have the feature turned on, said the Guardian.

Facebook uses facial recognition software in the US, with an option for Facebook users to opt out. Here, privacy agreements like this one are up to consumers of technologies and the companies that make them. States' regulators step in if companies break promises they make to consumers; the Federal Trade Commission responds when companies violate their terms of use, explains Dr. Foster.

“Consumers in the US have greater freedom to contract with technology providers like Facebook in their terms of use,” Foster explains.

“In Europe, although there are terms of use that govern the relationship, there’s a lot more background law that says what can be in the terms of use.”

So, whether it’s because countries like Germany in the post-Stasi – and post-Snowden era – are more sensitive to spying, or European countries are hesitant to cede so much power to American tech giants, or people there just value privacy more, Europeans are better protected by their governments, says Foster.

“There will be even more stringent rules in place in Europe under the new regulations and there could be some significant differences in the technology that’s available to EU and US consumers,” she says. “It remains to be seen whether people outside of Europe are OK with the levels of privacy offered by Facebook.”

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