Facebook is celebrating its 15th anniversary this week, lauding a decade and a half that has seen it gain around 2 billion users for its services, which now include Instagram, WhatsApp and a budding virtual reality platform, Oculus.

But NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards isn't quite ready to join in the celebrations.

He says that on the one hand, the social network seems to have a new openness.

"I was pleased, in the light of our naming of Facebook as non-compliant with New Zealand law in 2018 [after 64,000 New Zealanders saw their data shared without their permission in Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal], to see the company amend its terms and conditions to assure customers that they could expect the law of their home jurisdiction to apply to the processing of their personal information," he says.


"The individuals, some very senior in the company, with whom I regularly meet seem genuine in their desire to improve the company's practices."

But here comes the kicker.

"However, we do see a pattern in the news media of Facebook's assurances of its commitment to privacy values and improving its performance in light of recent abuses and debacles," Edwards says.

"These assurances seem to be followed by revelations which indicate Facebook is doubling down on the way it uses personal information rather than improving its privacy practices."

He references the recent scandal that saw a Facebook "Research" app banned from Apple's App Store following the revelation the social network was paying a selection of users - some as young as 13 - $20 a month to allow it unfettered access to all their browsing and messaging. The Facebook Research app's level of intrusiveness was not made clear to users, one expert said.

"If last week's allegations about the company's conduct in relation to its privileged access to Apple's Enterprise Developer Program are accurate, that would indicate either a profound ignorance of expected standards of conduct, or an outright contempt for those standards, which either way is inconsistent with assurances by the company's chief executive and others about responsible data management," Edwards says.

"I have not received any briefing or information on that matter and would be very happy to be corrected on that conditional assessment," Edwards says.

Tougher regulation needed

"The pattern we have seen from Facebook both domestically and internationally highlights the need for the company to be subjected to greater regulatory oversight both in New Zealand and in other jurisdictions in which its data is housed and processed," the Privacy Commissioner says.


"Concrete regulatory measures are needed to support the resolve of the executives who provide aspirational platitudes to international regulators, which seem pitted against the accountants, product managers and engineers."

An update to the Privacy Act is currently making its way through Parliament. The bill is currently parked before the Justice Select Committee.

Edwards has praised many aspects of the legislative update, which would make it more clear that his office has the power to regulate social networks like Facebook. However, he has also asked for it to have more teeth - specifically, the ability for the Privacy Commission to levy fines on organisations of up to $1 million, rather than just embarrass them with public admonishments.

So far, not certain that provision will make it to the final version of the bill.

Still, Edwards is optimistic that tougher regulation is on the way.

"We have seen promising developments in this regard. I hope soon to see New Zealand and US lawmakers take up the challenge presented by this organisation which is unprecedented internationally in its range, scope, membership and influence," he says.

Facebook responds

Facebook declined to make anyone from its Australia or New Zealand offices available to discuss recent privacy controversies.

A spokesman pointed the Herald to Zuckerberg's January 24 guest op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which the CEO says his company does not sell personal information. He also says Facebook is more transparent and gives its customers more control over account settings that other forms of media such as print, radio and TV. And that while it is true Facebook stores information about its users and their activity, that measure is necessary to offer convenient services and combat fraud and fake accounts and other security concerns.