Unpacking the Privacy Concerns Surrounding Meta's New Twitter Challenger, Threads

In recent days, the digital community has been buzzing about the launch of Threads, a novel social media platform created by Meta to rival Twitter. The initial response has been phenomenal with 30 million users registering within the first day, and the number ballooned to 100 million within five days. However, the app's ballooning popularity has been overshadowed by mounting concerns about user privacy.

The Apple App Store provides a detailed breakdown of the type of user data that Threads can potentially collect. This data ranges from purchase history and financial details to precise location, contact information, search and browsing history, and even diagnostic data such as crash data and performance metrics.

An examination of the types of personal data that Threads collects, as reported by Wired, reveals that the app gathers far more information than other competitors in the field like Bluesky. Conversely, the open-source social network Mastodon collects no user information, indicating that data collection is a choice, not a necessity.

The extensive data collection practices of Threads could spell trouble in the European Union (EU). Recently, Meta was slapped with a fine of approximately 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) for violating the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by transferring personal data of EU citizens to the US, where it could be subjected to broad surveillance. While billion-dollar fines may be a minor hiccup for Meta, a recent ruling by the EU's top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), could have more significant implications.

According to noyb.eu, an organization known for its successful privacy lawsuits against Facebook and Meta, the CJEU has issued a ruling that largely prevents Meta from using personal data beyond what is strictly necessary to deliver its core services. All other processing activities, such as advertising and sharing personal data, now require explicit and valid user consent. 

This decision has profound implications for companies reliant on personalized advertising business models. The stringent data privacy requirements enforced by the GDPR is suspected to be the primary reason why Threads is currently unavailable in the EU, a major market that Meta would undoubtedly like to tap into.

The privacy concerns surrounding Threads' extensive data collection practices may be partly why Meta's announcement of the new service places emphasis on a seemingly technical detail: the future integration of ActivityPub, an open social networking protocol established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This integration would make Threads interoperable with other apps that also support ActivityPub, such as Mastodon and WordPress.

This move to the ActivityPub protocol could potentially be a boon for user data protection, as it enables users to switch from privacy-disregarding services to those that respect their privacy without losing their social connections. It marks a potential shift from the current norm where users are stuck within the walled gardens of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others.

Despite Meta's plans to integrate ActivityPub into Threads, the implementation is not expected to be straightforward. Apart from the technical challenges of integrating hundreds of millions of Threads users with multiple external social networks, there are also larger, strategic concerns.

Some in the tech community fear that Meta's move might be an attempt to overpower smaller social networks by flooding them with Threads users – a technique commonly known as "embrace, extend, and extinguish." Yet, others like Watts Martin believe that such a takeover may not interest Meta, as it might not be worth the effort. 

Eugen Rochko, the creator of Mastodon, the leading ActivityPub social network, sees this development positively, arguing that it validates the move towards decentralized social media and offers an exit for those trapped in privacy-invasive platforms.

If Meta does proceed with ActivityPub integration for Threads, the specifics of how it will interact with existing social networks will become clearer. And should users be allowed to migrate from Threads along with their social connections, it could mark a significant victory for decentralized social networks and online privacy.

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