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.

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.

Facebook! Photograph: Facebook

James Vincent is a journalist and writer. He is interested in technology's impact on society.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.