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Should Facebook sign a code of conduct with Germany?

Written by Simply Zesty on

This is a story that I've been following some time, ever since we first wrote on our blog about a German state's decision to ban the use of the Like button over fears of citizen's privacy being unwillingly exposed. Relations between Facebook and Germany have been strained, as they have been at odds with how Facebook functions and how Germany evidently wants to protect its citizens. That has all changed now, however, as Facebook has just agreed to sign a voluntary code of conduct with the German government, following a meeting with Richard Allan - the director of policy in Europe for Facebook. According to the Wall Street Journal, the code will cover improving media literacy and transmitting data in accordance with German law.

Setting a precedent

While the code of conduct covers self-regulation and is aimed at protecting citizens, if they do go ahead and sign, Facebook risks setting a dangerous precedent in the way in which they operate. The beauty of social media is that it helps to contribute towards a democracy. The platform is the same no matter who has access to it and everyone is treated the same. And though the German government may be doing this for what they believe is in the citizen's best interest, should it not be the case that if you want to have the service in your country, you must choose to accept it in the way that everyone else does? Social media should be able to transcend any individual governance within a country, in a bid to create a more open democracy, instead of adjusting it to fit what that country says is right or wrong.

Does it really seem like Facebook to work on a separate agreement with a country that is (or was) going to introduce a fine of up to €50,000 if businesses within Schleswig-Holstein didn't remove the Like button from their site, following the announcement that it was being banned? This shows the danger in Facebook agreeing to work differently with a different country : by association they are seen to support actions like this.

A compromise

The issue becomes difficult when you consider the fact that we are as yet, nowhere near to a system of universal access to Facebook, Google etc. that isn't restricted by a country's individual policies or in many cases, extreme censorship. So should Facebook agree to work slightly differently with Germany, if it means that citizens and businesses get access to the same tools and service within Facebook, that the site is designed to offer? There is such a thing as cutting off your nose to spite your face, so if Germany seems genuinely willing to protect their user's privacy, it is understandable why Facebook seem likely to sign the code of conduct imminently. And it's a market that Facebook can't afford to ignore - as more than a quarter of German citizens are active on Facebook. If Facebook sign a code of conduct and it means that people get to access the site in the same way as everyone else, then is it really a bad thing?

The problem of course, is that while the front-end experience is the same for users, what goes on in the background is not necessarily consistent across every country Facebook is active in. It is specifically the transmission of data that is the key issue here. The data that is built up about individuals online is increasingly important as we enter into a data economy. The second that a site like Facebook, which arguably carries the most important and vast amount of data on individuals, signs up to do things slightly differently with any country - whether the reasons are perceived to be positive or negative - it introduces a change in the data game and social media loses the autonomy that is crucial to its survival.

A new kind of Facebook?

While I do view this completely within context and appreciate that this is hardly like Facebook signing up to collect even more user data, or pass it over to those who shouldn't have access, it seems like something altogether different for Facebook to do, compared to how they usually operate. Never before have they been seen to work so closely alongside governments or get involved with different policies. And interestingly, it seems like Facebook are well aware that this where they are headed to more and more, and so are manning up to be able to deal with outcomes and consequences of a change of direction at the company. They recently added another ex White House staff member to their board, by signing Erskine Bowles, a former chief of the Small Business Association and served as a White House chief of staff member under Bill Clinton. Clearly Facebook recognise their need to recruit board members that bring this valuable experience and connections with them, as they will inevitably enter more situations which requires them to work alongside governments or do things very differently to how they have done in the past.

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