06/26/2022

Oversight Board Suggests Meta Scrap Sharing Of Private Residential Addresses. To What Extent Can It Prevent Doxxing?

April 14, 2022 – Meta, the parent organisation of social media giants, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has decided to follow the recommendations laid out by the Oversight Board regarding the sharing of information on “publicly available” residential addresses by its users. The announcement comes nearly a year after Meta, previously known as Facebook, Inc., requested the Oversight Board to review its policy on the sharing of residential addresses across Facebook and Instagram.

The existing privacy policies of Facebook and Instagram prevent users from sharing someone’s residential address, but there is an exception: Users are allowed to share addresses that are already publicly available through news organisations, press releases, court filings and other channels, or those that have been carried by at least five news outlets. However, Meta has announced that the company will scrap this exception by the end of this year, on the advice of the Oversight Board.  

The Case About Information on ‘Publicly Available’ Private Residential Addresses

In a statement published on its website in June 2021, the Oversight Board announced that it had accepted a policy advisory opinion request from Meta regarding the sharing of information pertaining to private residential information.

Meta sought guidance on the sharing of private residential addresses and images and in what contexts this information could be shared on Facebook and Instagram. Meta stated that while access to this information could be relevant to journalism and civic activism, its exposure without consent could risk the resident’s safety and compromise their privacy. Among the major concerns Meta laid out before the Oversight Board was doxxing (release of identifying documents online with malicious intent).

Subsequently, the board invited public comments since it claims to be “committed to bringing diverse perspectives from third parties into the case review process.” The Oversight Board restricts public comments to itself for privacy and security concerns, but does publish in its report commenters who have given consent to publication. According to the board, it includes all comments to ensure a range of views on a case in consideration. However, content that violates the Terms for Public Comments is removed during the process. 

A Breakdown of Public Comments in the Case

A detailed report on the public comments, 43 in total, was uploaded by the Oversight Board to its website over a month after it announced taking up Meta’s request for guidance on the sharing of residential addresses. A majority of respondents voted against Meta allowing users across Facebook and Instagram to recirculate private residential addresses that are already in the public domain via channels mentioned above. 

However, the board also received suggestions from the commenters as to how Meta can regularise the sharing of private residential addresses. Some of them included: 

  • Limiting such information to only a user’s safe self-use
  • Allowing sharing of addresses of public office holders but for journalistic purposes 
  • Seeking written consent from the user whose address the platform intends to allow to be publicised 
  • If Meta halts any form of private information sharing, it will be seen as a more friendly platform where people would be guaranteed safety and privacy
  • Any posts containing personal information must be immediately taken down from Meta’s platforms
  • Even narrowly identifying information should be removed 
  • If addresses need to be shared (for gatherings, etc.), they can be exchanged on private messaging 

Commenters who outrightly rejected the sharing of private information cited the following reasons:

  • Stalking
  • Doxxing 
  • Violent reactions to postings 
  • Particular targeting of women on digital platforms
  • Possibility of damage outweighing journalistic advantage
  • Access to private information resulting in organised attacks 
  • Risk of home invasion, property damage and physical harm
  • Meta’s already existing control over a user’s personal information 
  • Risks posed to one’s life by sharing of personal addresses 

A few whose comments reflected opposition to complete censoring of residential addresses either cited the need for an assessment of public interest in the publication of information under question, or argued that Facebook will become a problematic platform for entrepreneurs, posing potential threat to small business after placing further restrictions on features that help with rightful navigation. 

The Oversight Board’s Recommendations and Meta’s Response

The Oversight Board returned Meta’s request with a set of recommendations, which ranged from guidance on sharing of residential addresses to the need for creating channels for doxxing. In case of residential addresses, the board suggested that the exception to permit users to share someone’s address be completely removed from the policy. 

“Remove the exception that allows the sharing of private residential address information when considered ‘publicly available’. This means that Meta would no longer allow otherwise violating content on Facebook and Instagram if it has been ‘published by at least five news outlets’ or if it contains residential addresses or imagery from financial records or statements of an organisation, court records, professional and business licenses, sex offenders registeries or press releases from government agencies, or law enforcement.”

In response to the board’s recommendation, Meta stated, As the board notes in this recommendation, removing the exception for ‘publicly available’ private residential information may limit the availability of this information on Facebook and Instagram when it is still publicly available elsewhere. However, we recognise that implementing this recommendation can strengthen privacy protections on our platforms.”

“We will fully implement this recommendation, as well as the board’s recommendation that we allow the sharing of imagery that displays the external view of private residences in various scenarios, but not when there is a context of organising protests against the resident.”

Meta has also adopted changes in its response to posts that include photos of private home exteriors. The company will not object if “the property depicted is the focus of a news story,” unless it is “shared in the content of organising protests against the resident.” Users will also be permitted to use the photos of public buildings occupied by “high-ranking officials (ambassadors, etc)”. 

On Doxxing 

In addition to its advice on allowing the sharing of residential addresses, the Oversight Board suggested Meta create a “specific channel” to oversee the reports of doxxing. Meta, however, responded by saying that “it is already building new channels for users to get support.” The company added that it has partnered with over 850 organisations, including the Revenge Porn Helpline (UK) and the National Network to End Domestic Violence (US), to seek help for users. 

Today doxxing is one of the most serious cybersecurity concerns in the rapidly expanding digital sphere that can lead to severe emotional, professional and physical damage, personal and family harassment, public shaming, and often entails criminal repercussions, sometimes with irreversible consequences.

While Meta’s revised policy, set to be rolled out by the end of 2022, may help with an added layer of protection against doxxing, Meta-owned platform Facebook has had a string of controversies that have time and again raised concerns over user safety and privacy. Being the most popular social media platform with nearly 3 billion monthly active users, and given Facebook’s highly publicised issues with privacy over the years, it has yet to be seen to what extent doxxing can be prevented as Meta scrambles to choke the sharing of residential addresses by the end of this year.

About the Oversight Board

To understand the role of the Oversight Board in Meta’s pursuance of its guidance in the company’s privacy policy, it is essential to look at the board’s history. The Oversight Board – consisting of human rights activists, lawyers and academics – was conceived by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg in November 2018 and was officially launched in October 2020. It was created after Meta surpassed a staggering two billion users worldwide. The main purpose of the Oversight Board’s creation was to help Meta with the handling of matters related to freedom of speech and online safety of its users. 

The board would also ensure that Facebook made informed decisions when it came to content regulation across its rapidly growing platforms. The Oversight Board appears to follow a simple process. After an appeal is submitted to the Board, it decides which case to take up. The selected case is then assigned to a panel, which reviews it and after deliberation, presents its decision and lays out policy recommendations to Meta.

 It also accepts appeals directly from users seeking the removal or restoration of specific content on Meta’s platforms after exhausting Facebook’s appeals process. The Oversight Board makes decisions on a range of content: photos, videos, posts, texts, shares and comments. 

Meta is not bound to adopt recommendations by the board, but the company must respond to the board’s reviews and assessments. 

 

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Usman Shahid is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy. He tweets @UsmanShahid_13

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