Facebook makes changes to research policies

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Facebook has come under fire for its research practices, with many people feeling that the company is tampering with users’ moods via News Feed experiments.

Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer addressed this today, saying that Facebook is putting into effect a new framework that governs both internal work and research that might be published — starting with clearer guidelines for researchers:

In 2011, there were studies suggesting that when people saw positive posts from friends on Facebook, it made them feel bad. We thought it was important to look into this, to see if this assertion was valid and to see if there was anything we should change about Facebook. Earlier this year, our own research was published, indicating that people respond positively to positive posts from their friends.

Although this subject matter was important to research, we were unprepared for the reaction the paper received when it was published and have taken to heart the comments and criticism. It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently. For example, we should have considered other non-experimental ways to do this research. The research would also have benefited from more extensive review by a wider and more senior group of people. Last, in releasing the study, we failed to communicate clearly why and how we did it.

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After white hat researcher hacks Mark Zuckerberg’s timeline, Facebook vows to improve communication

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Facebook CEO and Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg loves building a hacker culture, but when his own timeline was hacked, things got a little serious.

White hat research Khalil Shreateh tried to get Facebook’s attention regarding a bug that would allow a hacker to post to anyone’s timeline, but didn’t get much of a response from the company. Facebook responded to Shreateh, saying that what he brought to their attention was not a bug. Feeling that his claims were falling on deaf ears, Shreateh went all out and hacked into Zuckerberg’s timeline.

Facebook responded, saying that the white hat program “failed,” in its communication with Shreateh.

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Facebook explains policy on hate speech and other harmful content

safetyFacebook has shared an explanation of how it defines hate speech and harmful content, as well as its plans to address the issues of cruel and insensitive content on the site, following challenges from Women, Action and The Media, the Everyday Sexism Project and a number of activists and organizations calling on the social network to take action against groups, pages and images that condone or encourage rape or domestic violence.

In a note on the Facebook Safety page, Facebook explained that it prohibits content that is “directly harmful,” but it allows content that may be “offensive or controversial.” The company defines harmful content as “anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying).” Facebook also prohibits “hate speech,” which it defines as “direct and serious attacks on any protected category of people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease.”

Facebook says it tries to remove this type of content as soon as possible, but other offensive and distasteful content might not qualify for removal. Still, the company acknowledged:

“In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate. In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want.  In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria.”

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Facebook roundup: video ads, voice calling, logos and more

tvFacebook video ad units could come with TV price tags – Facebook is reportedly prepping to sell its new video ads with an “upfront”-type marketplace and TV-like prices. According to AdAge, Facebook will have four daily summer slots — women over 30, women under 30, men over 30 and men over 30 — with an asking price close to $1 million. The exact ad format hasn’t been locked down, but it is believed that the videos will be 15-seconds long and users will see no more than three per day at launch. It is unclear whether the ads will autoplay in the feed or not.

messengerMore Messenger for Android users get free calling - Facebook this week released an update for its Messenger app on Android, bringing free VoiP calling to users in the U.S. and 23 other countries. Previously, this was in testing with Android users in Canada and iOS users in several countries. From Messenger, users can tap the “i” button inside a conversation and then select “Free Call.”
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Malicious Chrome extension promising business version of Flash can take over users’ Facebook accounts

securitySome Facebook users have fallen victim to a new phishing scam, which takes over a user’s Facebook account, Liking pages and posting links on their behalf, according to PC World.

The scam reportedly begins with an email that prompts users to download a new “business” version of Adobe Flash Player. Users who click on the spam link are taken to the Chrome Web Store to download a browser extension. After users download the extension, the malware will check to see if a user is logged into Facebook, and if so, it will use a script to control the account.
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Facebook roundup: Android app update, bullying prevention, anti-virus software, PAC donations, engineering and more

Facebook updates Android app – Facebook released an update for its native Android app Thursday, including improvements for photo sharing. Photo tagging is faster and users can now choose an album for their uploads. The app also fixes an upload bug that affected some users.

Facebook takes steps against bullying – Facebook launched a bullying prevention page in its Family Safety Center on Thursday as part of National Bullying Awareness Month. The page includes resources like a support dashboard to help users follow up on problem posts, a video describing how to use social resolution tools, a video featuring successful stories from communities fighting back against bullies and links encouraging members to take the Stop Bullying: Speak Up pledge. Facebook also partnered with the Ad Council to raise awareness of the issue of bullying through a new PSA.

Facebook partners with more anti-virus companies -Facebook this week announced the expansion of its AV Marketplace to include 7 new partners offering free anti-virus software for Facebook users: avast!AVGAviraKasperskyPandaTotal Defense and Webroot. Existing partners MicrosoftMcAfeeNortonTrendMicro and Sophos will begin offering anti-virus software for users’ mobile devices.

Facebook names World Hack winners – Facebook announced the grand prize winners of its Facebook Developer World Hack this week: Paperclip.io from Taipei, Chained Story from Buenos Aires, and BoostMate from Moscow. The teams have won a trip to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, where they will meet with members of the Facebook engineering team. The Facebook Developer World Hack included events in Austin, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Taipei, Berlin, Jakarta, Bangalore, Barcelona, Vancouver, Warsaw and Moscow. The company hosted more than 2,000 developers ans saw more than 330 demos of social products.

Facebook PAC gives more to Republicans; employees give to Democrats – Facebook’s political action committee has given $140,000 to Republican congressional candidates and $127,000 to Democrats through the end of September, according to a CNNMoney review of federal records released Monday.  However, donations from the company’s employees have totaled $116,300 for Democrats and $53,700 for Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has given $30,800 to the Democratic National Committee and $5,000 to President Obama, and dozens of smaller contributions to congressional Democrats. Facebook’s PAC did not make any donations to presidential candidates.

Facebook opens London engineering office – Facebook opened its first international engineering office in London on Tuesday. Philip Su, who previously led on Facebook’s Skype integration, is reportedly heading up the team there. London engineers will work on a “range” of products including Facebook’s platform and mobile products. Facebook already has a London sales team working with local agencies on social marketing services.

Facebook makes recommendations to FTC about children’s privacy law

Facebook filed a 22-page letter with the Federal Trade Commission outlining its thoughts and recommendations for the commission’s proposed changes to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

The social network lauded the FTC’s commitment to protecting children’s online experiences and privacy, but expressed concern about some language in the proposed change, which could hold Facebook liable in cases where third-parties use its social plugins and create additional burdens for Facebook, developers, publishers and parents. In particular, Facebook urged the commission to explicitly allow first-party advertising as an acceptable use of a child’s “persistent identifier,” such as an IP address or cookie ID.

The FTC is proposing that COPPA be expanded to apply to apps, games and online ad networks, in addition to the child-directed websites it currently covers. Some language in the proposal would deem website publishers and developers that use plugins like Facebook Login or the Like Button as “co-operators” with Facebook. Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan, who wrote the letter to the FTC, suggests that the language in the proposal “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between plugin providers and website publishers.” The social network, for example, makes plugins available but doesn’t choose which websites use them, which plugins they use or how they use them. Neither does Facebook share data with the third-parties that use its plugins. As such, the company wants to ensure that it would not be held liable under COPPA for offenses by web publishers or app developers that integrate with its platform.

The FTC proposal makes some exceptions for collecting and using children’s information as needed for “support for internal operations.” Facebook requests that the FTC clarify its definition of “support for internal operations” to include data captured by plugins and to explicitly include activities that do not impact children’s privacy, such as first-party advertising. The letter cites the commission’s previous reports that distinguish first-party advertising from third-party advertising because it does not raise the same privacy concerns and is generally an expected part of free websites and online services.

Egan further recommends that COPPA not include language that requires operators of child-directed sites to “treat all users as children” and obtain parental consent even if they otherwise have knowledge that a user is 13 years or older. For example, if a user has signed up for Facebook, the user has verified that they are over 13 by providing a birthdate. Egan says this should apply to third-party sites that integrate plugins without requiring additional consent or age verification. “It would be nonsensical to require an operator to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting information from a parent,” Egan writes.

As we’ve previously written about, Facebook could ultimately serve as a means for age verification all around the web. In its letter, the company suggests that the commission could add explicit clarification that publishers can use a common mechanism to obtain verifiable parental consent, as Microsoft, Disney and a number of organizations have suggested in their comments to the FTC. Doing this, Egan writes, would minimize the burden on parents by reducing the number of times they have to give consent and eliminate the need for multiple detailed privacy notices. Instead, parents could give consent and get notice up front. They would then then get a more specific notice when a child wants to play a game or use a new app. If a platform provides this ability, Facebook argues, it should not assume liability or turn the platform into a “co-operator” with third-party apps or websites that implement it.

The Wall Street Journal reported in June that Facebook was taking steps toward allowing children under 13 to be allowed on the site, including creating mechanisms that would connect children’s accounts to those of their parents. Facebook has not publicly shared whether it is planning to lower its age limit or how it would do so.

Facebook may allow children under 13 on its social network: could it solve age verification on the Internet?

There’s certain to be a lot of scrutiny and backlash over any implementation of Facebook accounts for children under 13, which the social network is reportedly exploring. But if the company can find an appropriate balance of features and parental controls, it may be able to serve users in new ways and help solve the Internet-wide issue of age verification.

Facebook currently requires users to be at least 13 years old, but some studies have found a significant number of children are on the site anyway. Users lying about their age goes against Facebook’s emphasis on “real identity,” but it also puts the company in a precarious position as far as how it handles children’s privacy and safety.

“Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services,” Facebook said in statement to the Wall Street Journal. “We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.”

Notice that Facebook did not refer to its own platform in that statement. The wording is designed to avoid implying that any particular features are in the works, but it also reinforces Facebook’s philosophy that everything it does has wider implications for the Web. If Facebook can get younger users to create legitimate accounts that are verified by their parents, other websites and applications could end up using Facebook login to verify a user’s age and tailor the experience appropriately. Currently, websites will ask users to self-report their age, but they do not do anything to verify whether that is the same age a person has used on other sites. Apps that connect with Facebook are more likely to be able to confirm whether a user is over 18 or 21, for example, but if much younger users are lying about their age to get onto the social network, then Facebook login won’t necessarily help. If Facebook becomes the standard for age-gating online content, then there is an incentive for parents to make sure their children have an account with their correct birthdate.

As for how lowering the age barrier would affect Facebook itself, we imagine that an under-13 version of the site would have significant restrictions on who could see a child’s profile and what features children can access. For example, currently Facebook prevents any minor from posting anything publicly — the widest privacy setting they can enable is friends of friends. Facebook also sets location sharing as off by default for users under 18. Wall Street Journal sources say Facebook is looking at ways to give parents control over the people and applications their children connect with on the site.

The social network will likely limit — or possibly forgo — advertising to users under 13. Facebook’s ad model emphasizes friend connections to encourage users to connect with pages or apps. The company recently settled a lawsuit that claimed its Sponsored Stories misappropriated users’ names and photos for advertising. Using children’s identities this way is likely to be even more sensitive. Most existing social networks for young people avoid advertising. Some charge membership subscription fees, but Facebook isn’t likely to go that route since it emphasizes that it is a free service. It could instead monetize through the use of Facebook Credits for games and other digital goods. Payments from Credits made up about 15 percent of Facebook’s more than $3.7 billion in revenue in 2011. Many parents already let their kids play games from their account, and  some of the most popular sites for kids are virtual world games like Club Penguin, Webkinz and Moshi Monsters.

Walt Disney Co., which owns Club Penguin, has a strong position in kids’ social networking and has reportedly had discussions with Facebook about opening up the site to younger users. Disney recently acquired Togetherville, a site that used Facebook login to allow parents to manage their kids’ accounts and connect with other parents, but it shut the site down in March. Disney’s social networking efforts are primarily entertainment-based rather than utility-focused, as Facebook is. For example, elementary education might be an area that gets reshaped by Facebook. We’ve already seen Khan Academy and Grockit integrate Open Graph to share teens’ studying and test-prep activity. Facebook itself has introduced new university-only groups that help students connect, organize events and share documents. With time, we could see ways for younger students to benefit from online networking.

Facebook could also help parents chronicle their kids’ lives with Timeline. Some users have already begun to do this after having a new baby, but because of age restrictions, parents have to set a fake birth year. Facebook could build a better process for helping parents’ document important events in their kids’ lives and then enabling accounts to be transferred to children over time.

Facebook offers suicide prevention information for military, veterans, families

Facebook today announced it will offer military-specific suicide prevention information for veterans, active duty service members and their families as part of a partnership with Blue Star Families and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The social network already allows users to report potentially suicidal content from friends. The person who posted the content will immediately receive an email from Facebook encouraging them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or click on a link to begin a confidential chat session with a crisis worker. Now, the system will identify military personnel and their families and direct their friends to information from the Veterans Crisis Line when they report content as harmful or suicidal.

As we suggested last week following the news of Facebook’s organ donation initiative, there are increasing opportunities for non-profit organizations to work directly with the social network. The company has implemented a number of features over the years to promote safety, public health and activism among its now more than 900 million members.

Blue Star Families conducted its annual Military Lifestyle Survey and found that 10 percent of military family members have considered suicide and 9 percent of service members have. Since the survey also revealed that 86 percent of respondents used Facebook daily, the social network was uniquely positioned to help the organization.

The Facebook engineering team developed a customized solution to identify military personnel and their families. As a result, people who report these users’ content as harmful or suicidal will receive specific information about crisis services for the military.

Users can report suicidal content here or through “Report” links directly from Timeline, Ticker or News Feed.

Facebook partners with anti-virus software makers to provide free computer security

Facebook today announced the Antivirus Marketplace, a partnership with Microsoft, McAfee, Trend Micro, Sophos, and Symantec, to provide the social network’s users with free six-month licenses to anti-virus software.

The anti-virus partners will augment Facebook’s URL blacklist system with their own URL blacklist databases. The companies will also contribute to the Facebook Security Blog to provide information about how users can protect their accounts and keep Facebook safe for other users.

With 901 million monthly active users, the social network is a prime target fo malware, viruses, phishing attacks and spam. Facebook has made several improvements to its automated enforcement — including self-XSS protection and quickly blocking apps, profiles or links that a certain percentage of people mark as spam — and user-facing security protections, like login approvals and remote log-out, but providing anti-virus software adds another layer of security.

The company has worked with McAfee in the past to give users free and discounted anti-virus protection. Symantec, which produces Norton anti-virus software, has maintained an app on Facebook since 2010 that scans users’ News Feeds for unsafe links. The company also helped Facebook identify a data leak in 2011. Sophos is an interesting partner since the security software developer has been quite critical of Facebook in the past.

Users can visit the Facebook Security page to access the free software downloads and receive updates about protecting their accounts.

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