In a surprise announcement today, Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) confirmed that it scans private messages between users. The statement from the Menlo Park company comes in response to a video released yesterday, which showed the effects private messages containing links had on the Like counter of the linked content.

Facebook, which today announced it had reached 1 billion users, has been battling with privacy concerns even more fervently since its IPO in may. The company today announced it would allow users to pay to have some of their comments appear higher up on the website for the first time. The news was first reported by thenextweb.com today.

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The video, released by a Polish start up company, called Killswitch.me, was removed from Youtube, because of some objectionable content. anybody who would still like to view it in its entirety, it’s just over 2 minutes long, can see it on Vimeo.

In a rare move toward openness, Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) has taken the initiative and confirmed that it does in fact read the private messages that are sent from user to user. It is these scans that caused the likes of linked content to increase.

Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) is using a series of bots that scan private messages for links to content that contains “Like” buttons. If a Like button is detected, however, a bug is activated, whereby the linked content has its likes increased by two.

A tutorial on how to activate the glitch, and thereby artificially increases the Likes of specific content, appears in the video. It is unlikely that this will lead to an extended period of “Like” inflation however. It appears from the video that the process is time consuming and repetitive.

The glitch acknowledged by Facebook is not in the increase in “Likes”, or the scanning of messages. It is, in fact, in the magnitude of the increase in “Likes”. According to Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB), when a link is shared in a private message it should increase the “Like” counter by one, rather than two.

This may be news to some long time Facebook users. The company’s famous “Like” counter measures not just clicks on a Like button, but takes into account sharing of the content, as well as comments on the content, and now private messages.

Emil Protalinski, the writer at thenextweb.com who originally picked up on this story, rightly points out that the scanning of private messages for data on content is not the same as scanning for the same data on comments, or public declarations of “Like”.

This is not the first time a company has been indicted for scanning the content of users’ private messages. Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) and other web mail providers have been scanning users’ emails for years, in order to pick the advertisements best suited to them.

Facebook responded quickly to privacy questions, sternly asserting that no user information was shared, and summarized a definition of a “Like” that left it beyond any user’s ownership. In the following quote, Facebook essentially claims ownership of the “Likes” of a user through distribution control.

“Many websites that use Facebook’s ‘Like’, ‘Recommend’, or ‘Share’ buttons also carry a counter next to them. This counter reflects the number of times people have clicked those buttons, and also the number of times people have shared that page’s link on Facebook. When the count is increased via shares over private messages, no user information is exchanged, and privacy settings of content are unaffected. Links shared through messages do not affect the Like count on Facebook Pages”.

Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) has certainly not crossed a line with this latest news, any more than they have on hundreds of other occasions. Because of the nature of the business, the company will be dodging privacy issues for as long as it operates. A satisfactory solution to who owns what, and who gets to read what, is unlikely to be formed in our life times.

 

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