June 05, 2013

Don't Always Assume the Worst! - Facebook Falsely Accused of Purposely Blocking Data Downloads

Regular readers know that I'm no fan of Facebook -- I don't use it myself and I'm surviving very nicely without it, thank you.

But common sense gave way to fuzzy thinking and rumormongering today, when a story spread like wildfire across the Net -- via Slashdot, Reddit, and an array of other sites, claiming that Facebook was now purposely blocking users from downloading their "timeline" (still often called "wall") postings data, as had been previously possible.

This rumor may have started with an angry blog posting at a site which I'll not provide with link juice here today. The posting apparently wasn't inaccurate in describing problems that the author was having downloading their Facebook data, but rather in the implication that this was a purposeful policy change by Facebook -- and this latter concept became the tinderbox that set off angry comments and dialogue around the Web.

I suspected from the outside that this was likely just a bug. I now have confirmation from two Facebook engineering sources that this is indeed the case, and that a fix is likely to go live within a few days.

There were multiple reasons from the outset to suspect that we were dealing with an engineering glitch and not a policy change.

Perhaps the most obvious of these is that it simply would not make any kind of sense for Facebook to make such a change! I've been pretty critical of Facebook's handling of various privacy matters over time, particularly in terms of their specific user-facing implementations.

But to suddenly block this type of user data download would be ludicrous on its face and incredibly counterproductive to both Facebook and its users. The negative PR and in some countries regulatory blowback would likely be enormous. It would be utterly illogical.

Other clues that this was just a bug were also apparent.

The relevant Facebook help pages regarding data downloads and exports said nothing to indicate that such a policy change had taken place.

There was enormous inconsistency in user reports regarding this situation today. Some users reported that the data in question was missing from their downloads. Some claimed they couldn't download at all. Others were able to export all their data -- including timeline/wall data -- completely intact without difficulties.

While it's always possible that variations in user experience are the result of an engineering change being gradually rolled out across the platform, this just didn't seem to make sense in today's instance, especially given the other facts.

I understand that it may be human nature much of the time to emotionally believe the worst, but seriously, today's policy change rumors should really have been suspicious to just about everyone, given even a bit of real thought.

In an age when all manner of bizarre and inane conspiracy theories thrive, I can't say that I'm surprised when a false rumor like this gets traction bouncing around the Web's echo chamber.

But let's face it -- if we're actually going to automatically assume evil decisions every time there's an operational issue in these highly complex systems, it's a pretty sad commentary about our society overall.

I'm pretty sure we can do much better than that if we try.


Posted by Lauren at June 5, 2013 04:21 PM | Permalink
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