Facebook Introduces Graph Search, Privacy Challenges Possible

Facebook recently unveiled “Graph Search,” an innovation designed to help users find and connect their friends by their interests, shared history, and past activity on the social networking platform. The new feature, which will begin beta testing soon, greatly expands the search capabilities of the Facebook platform in a move some commentators speculate may help it compete with Google in the search business area. The Wall Street Journal has a rundown of Graph Search’s functionality here.

Graph Search will allow users to make searches using natural language. For instance, a user planning an evening out could search “Lawyers who live in New York and like sushi and Star Wars” to find appropriate friends to invite. To identify relevant results, the Graph Search algorithm will reach back into users’ past photo postings, status updates, geolocation activity, content shares, “Likes” and other actions. It will also analyze users’ past searches to better optimize their future needs. Already, tech blogs are speculating that Graph Search could disrupt companies offering local restaurant searches, and be of considerable utility for companies implementing targeted marketing campaigns.

As with any major change to the Facebook architecture, privacy advocacy groups will be watching closely to see how Graph Search is implemented. Moreover, the wide range of companies managing user information, trading in “big data analytics,” and providing targeted advertising will doubtless be keeping tabs on whether there is any legislative response to Facebook’s actions. Laws governing use (including sale) of user data, disclosure standards, and online opt-out provisions are a particularly hot topic issue in the EU. All companies operating in the EU that capture and leverage user data would be well-advised to keep tabs on impending legislation and ensure they are complying with all applicable international laws.

Perhaps cognizant of recent user reaction to Instagram’s revised terms and conditions, Facebook is touting Graph Search as “privacy aware.” Users will be able to prevent specific instances of activity from appearing in global searches by adjusting their privacy settings. However, users will not be able to opt-out completely from the service, and may have to resort to “de-tagging” activity reaching back several years to ensure it is not captured by the Graph Search algorithm.

Privacy legislation issues aside, it is possible that Graph Search will create new challenges in the formative areas of digital copyright and trademark law. Accordingly, CDAS advises clients operating on the Facebook platform to be vigilant to how Graph Search and its repercussions may affect them.

If you have any questions about this article, please contact an attorney in the CDAS Digital Media Practice Group.