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Facebook wants your data, and magic legalese won't keep it away

You can pray to the gods of law, but they're selling your information regardless.

New Statesman
Facebook! Photograph: Facebook

Facebook has long been a big player in the fight over privacy. Now, its latest proposed changes to its terms of service have been met with dismay from Facebook users and privacy advocacy groups alike.

Released on 21 November, the proposed changes would remove the "Who can send you Facebook messages” mechanism from the site’s privacy options, stop the system that allowed users to vote on changes to policy, and combine Facebook’s user data with that collected by Instagram, a photo-sharing app that the company purchased in April 2012.

In reaction to the proposals, two US campaign groups (the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy) sent a letter on the 27 November (pdf) addressed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, condemning the company’s actions. The letter notes that the changes could “raise privacy risks for users”, “may be contrary to the law”, and are likely to “increase the amount of spam that users receive”. Facebook has so far declined to comment on these criticisms.

Of the proposed changes, the amendment that will have the most impact on users is the company’s decision to pool personal information between Instagram and Facebook. Previously such data was “siloed”, meaning that engineers and marketers working at one couldn’t access information from the other, even if it was about the same person. Under the new policy such data would be compiled into a single unified profile, accessible to advertisers on either site.

This change casts the $1bn Facebook paid for Instagram, a price that many thought was too much, in a new light. Facebook will be collecting geolocation data, a valuable metric for marketers, from its new subsidiary. Users of the app who answered "yes" to the question "Can Instagram use your location?" have been tagging each picture they take with their precise coordinates; the changes to the terms of service allow this data to be synced with individuals’ Facebook profile, even if the user turned off geotagging on that site.

This integration would a boon to advertisers, as data about where you live allows them to guess about other aspects your life, like how much money you make and what you are likely to buy. And this exchange of information works both ways - Instagram ads that had previously been targeted to individuals using only rough geographical data can now be further "personalised" using details from Facebook. This new system makes perfect economic sense for the company, even if it does directly contravene a previous commitment Zuckerberg had made to “building and growing Instagram independently”.

It is important to note that Facebook is not alone in this more-the-merrier approach to your personal information. In January 2012 Google also changed its privacy policy so that it could aggregate data that had been "siloed" in separate services, creating unified user profiles with information culled from Gmail, YouTube, and Google+. Facebook is not unusually mercantile in its proposed policy changes; it is merely following the crowd.

The changes have also worried Facebook’s own users, with many reacting by updating their statuses with a bizarre "privacy notice"; three copy-and-pasted paragraphs that supposedly safeguard one’s personal data “under the protection of copyright laws”. Facebook has already posted a statement refuting the meme, and Snopes have also addressed the issue, pointing out that short of leaving the site or “bilaterally [negotiating] a modified policy with Facebook” (please do try), there is no way of altering the terms and policies you have already agreed to. Fortunately for users these agreements never gave away "copyright" protection in the first place.

The cargo-cult legalese of this meme is entertaining in itself (one variation I saw ended with the arcane incantation of “Notice to Agent is Notice to Principal. Notice to Principal is Notice to Agent”), but it also shows an ingrained misunderstanding of how privacy policy on the internet functions. The public’s reaction to these sorts of incidents is characterized by a sort of suspicious ignorance (we don’t know what they’re up to, we just don’t trust ‘em), accompanied by the understandable but mistaken belief that as customers, we deserve to be listened to.

Facebook has marketed itself as a benevolent facilitator of community and friendship for so long that its customers forget that it is still a business, intent on turning a profit. The proposed policy changes are a sharp reminder of the truth, with all of them affirming the relentless logic of the bottom line: that is, the creation of rich packages of data (‘people’) that can be sold on to advertisers. And if some people are still coming to terms with this realisation that Facebook is no longer all about helping us to "connect and share with the people in our life", then I can see why the promises of a fix-all copy and paste spell are attractive. Unfortunately, they just don’t work.