Facebook: Where You're the Product, and Advertisers are the Customers


Facebook sure has been in the news a lot recently and not for good reasons. The topic that put Facebook and other tech companies on the front page of newspapers was the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. As the news cycle moves on to newer and more shocking stories, Facebook and the other companies have been removed from the limelight. 

In the eyes of many, Facebook didn’t do anything explicitly wrong. Instead, they did not put into place certain precautions to prevent bad actors from, well, acting bad. Facebook didn’t affect the elections, they just weren’t careful enough to prevent others from affecting it. So, Facebook made some promises that they will be better and that is that.

In some ways, I think the 2016 election scandal has actually shielded Facebook from smaller but much more troubling scandals. 

Take this this story by Gizmodo from September about how Facebook is giving advertisers access to your shadow contact information:

Facebook is not upfront about this practice. In fact, when I asked its PR team last year whether it was using shadow contact information for ads, they denied it. Luckily for those of us obsessed with the uncannily accurate nature of ads on Facebook platforms, a group of academic researchers decided to do a deep dive into how Facebook custom audiences work to find out how users’ phone numbers and email addresses get sucked into the advertising ecosystem. […]

The researchers also found that if User A, whom we’ll call Anna, shares her contacts with Facebook, including a previously unknown phone number for User B, whom we’ll call Ben, advertisers will be able to target Ben with an ad using that phone number, which I call “shadow contact information,” about a month later. Ben can’t access his shadow contact information, because that would violate Anna’s privacy, according to Facebook, so he can’t see it or delete it, and he can’t keep advertisers from using it either.

The lead author on the paper, Giridhari Venkatadri, said this was the most surprising finding, that Facebook was targeted ads using information “that was not directly provided by the user, or even revealed to the user.”

 It's hard to argue how Facebook is not stealing Ben's info in the above example.

And then there is the matter of how Facebook stole users' information and shared it with Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and others:

The exchange was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

And how even Facebook knows that tracking people's phone calls and texts is creepy:

Then a man named Yul Kwon came to the rescue saying that the growth team had come up with a solution! Thanks to poor Android permission design at the time, there was a way to update the Facebook app to get “Read Call Log” permission without actually asking for it. “Based on their initial testing, it seems that this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all,” Kwon is quoted. “It would still be a breaking change, so users would have to click to upgrade, but no permissions dialog screen. They’re trying to finish testing by tomorrow to see if the behavior holds true across different versions of Android.”

Oh yay! Facebook could suck more data from users without scaring them by telling them it was doing it! This is a little surprising coming from Yul Kwon because he is Facebook’s chief ‘privacy sherpa,’ who is supposed to make sure that new products coming out of Facebook are privacy-compliant. I know because I profiled him, in a piece that happened to come out the same day as this email was sent. A member of his team told me their job was to make sure that the things they’re working on “not show up on the front page of the New York Times” because of a privacy blow-up. And I guess that was technically true, though it would be more reassuring if they tried to make sure Facebook didn’t do the creepy things that led to privacy blow-ups rather than keeping users from knowing about the creepy things.

It is fascinating that as more and more stories come out, you almost start to think Facebook is a criminal enterprise. Not only are they stealing but they are self-aware enough to know that what they are doing is creepy.

But maybe it doesn't matter? A recent study found that the average person would require $1,000 to quit Facebook:

"In the study published today in PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of Michigan, Tufts University and Kenyon College in Ohio say they’ve calculated the potential cost of leaving Facebook - that is, what existing users feel they’d need to be paid in order to deactivate their accounts - based on a series of auctions. In each auction, groups of people or individuals offered bids for an acceptable payment to get them to deactivate Facebook. Participants got real money when they showed proof.

The price tag? An average of $1,000, enough to give new meaning to the GoodFellas-line-turned-Millennial-adage, “F*ck you, pay me.” Corrigan says he’s experimented in the past with auctions as a way to estimate what items like e-cigarettes and GMOs are worth to people. Auctions are an ideal place to assess perceptions about worth, because the people participating face real financial consequences for their decision-making."

So although they knowingly track who people call and text (and know that it is creepy), have become the arbiter of global speech, and straight up steal people’s information, it doesn’t seem like people are going to stop using the service.

Which brings us to the most difficult part of the conversation — what do we do about this? I wish I had the answer. Maybe that is the most frustrating thing. We don’t like what they are doing but we don’t have an alternative. Whether you are a grandmother who wants to see photos of your new grandchild or are a professional social media marketer, you are stuck using a service that makes you uncomfortable using. 

I guess all you can do is go into it wide-eyed and skeptical. You need to be keenly aware of the relationship between you and the service provider. You need to understand that you are not the customer and Facebook is not the product, you are the product and advertisers are the customers. You need to be cognizant that Facebook is aggressively mining all of your personal data and selling it or even just giving it away to other companies. Proceed with caution, friends.