Facebook’s Privacy Shift Doesn’t Mean It’s Protecting You

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Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB) privacy policies made headlines after the company’s earnings call near the end of July, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg made some interesting comments on his vision for how the site responds to users’ demands for more private ways to share their content. Despite the headlines that followed, Zuckerberg’s comments didn’t represent a truly new direction in Facebook’s handling of user privacy — just a decision to end one privacy battle in which the social network has been locked with users for years.

As GigaOM’s David Meyer notes in a piece called “Facebook has only ‘pivoted’ on one kind of privacy — in other ways, it’s becoming more dangerous,” the headlines proclaiming that Facebook’s policy on privacy has changed aren’t entirely correct. “There’s privacy and there’s privacy — and the kind that Facebook has decided to no longer play games with is just one facet, albeit an important one,” Meyer writes. “Broadly speaking, it’s the kind that relates to providing a reliable border between private and public spaces. As for privacy from Facebook itself, its advertising customers and surveillance-happy authorities, that’s an entirely different matter.” Meyer was responding to a piece called “Facebook’s Privacy Pivot,” by Slate’s Will Oremus. In that article, Oremus reported that Mark Zuckerberg told investors that privacy features, private messaging, and anonymous logins are key to Facebook’s growth. Oremus said: “From WhatsApp to Snapchat to bitcoin to Secret and Whisper, privacy is as hot today in the technology industry as ‘sharing’ and ‘openness’ were four years ago. And Facebook intends to capitalize on it — provided it’s not too late.” Oremus lists off the moves that Facebook has made this year to meet public demand and conform to the trend toward privacy, noting that Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, its introduction of the “privacy dinosaur” avatar, its rolling out of an anonymous login, and its switch from a public default setting to a “friends” default setting are all clear signs of the shift in the social network’s handling of user privacy. Oremus transcribed Zuckerberg’s comments on the future of privacy on Facebook:

“One of the things that we focus on the most is creating private spaces for people to share things and have interactions that they couldn’t have had elsewhere. So if you go back to the very beginning of Facebook — rewind 10 years — there were blogs and things where you could be completely public, and there were emails so you could circulate something completely private. But there were no spaces where you could share with just your friends.
“It wasn’t a completely private experience, but it’s not completely public: It’s 100 or 150 of the people that you care about. And creating that space, which was a space that had a kind of privacy that no one had ever seen before, was what enabled and continues to enable the kinds of interactions and other content that people feel comfortable sharing in this network.
“So we’re looking for new opportunities to create new dynamics like that and open up new, different private spaces for people where they can then feel comfortable sharing and having the freedom to express something to people that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. It’s one of the reasons I’m personally so excited about messaging. Because at some level there are only so many photos you’re going to want to share with all your friends.
I mean, obviously, we still think there’s more to do there. But the amount of messaging and how quickly we see that growing, it’s crazy. There is just a lot more that people want to express and that they need the tools to express with smaller groups of people — not just one person at a time, but small groups as well. Things like anonymous login totally unlock different behavior. So we view our jobs as, like, very fundamentally providing people with these spaces and tools. Which is very different from how a lot of people think about what Facebook is.”

Oremus argues in Slate that Zuckerberg and Facebook as a whole have come to recognize that the social network’s advertising-fueled business model doesn’t rely on getting users to share everything publicly. Instead, it relies on getting them to use Facebook services as often as possible. Their activity adds to the site’s continually growing profile on their preferences and interests. For users to be comfortable with sharing that information with Facebook, they need to trust the site and its privacy policies to protect them. Oremus thinks “it’s not inconceivable” that consumers will trust Facebook even as it uses their data to target advertising. However, what Oremus doesn’t acknowledge in his claim that Facebook “has totally changed its stance on privacy” is not only that the changes just see Facebook conceding on one battleground, but they also say nothing of Facebook’s broader strategy to become more pervasive in users’ online lives. While it’s good that Facebook has stopped pushing users to make their content public instead of private and has given them more control of what they’re sharing with whom, what you could consider as the network’s new version of a default “public” setting are the default settings that allow the user’s activity and information to be factored in to his or her profile for targeted advertising. Those profiles incorporate not only information that’s shared and gathered directly on Facebook, but also include information about consumers’ usage of outside apps and websites.

Facebook’s new Save tool is another move that points to the company’s vision of getting users to spend increasing amounts of time accessing content via Facebook’s platforms. As they do that, Facebook will gain access to more information about their activity and behavior. While that’s not inherently a bad thing so long as consumers are aware of it — it feels inevitable, in a sense — it does seem dangerous to tell users that Facebook’s privacy has improved across the board, because that’s simply not true. Instead, Facebook has traded one privacy battle for another. As GigaOM’s Meyer says: “It’s great that Facebook now feels able to abandon its former dishonest strategy around the public-versus-private kind of privacy. But as for the other kind — the one that relates to building ever more detailed profiles of Facebook’s users – things look set to get worse for privacy fans, not better.”

Facebook learns about users through the information they share directly on their profiles — such as age, gender, location, and interests — and also through the pages that they like and the apps and websites that they use. That means that when users access their ad profiles, they’ll see the information, interests, and activity that influence the ads that the social network displays, but will have to go through a longer process than clicking a few changes on Facebook to opt out of the extended tracking that yields information on their habits on other websites and apps.

When Facebook recently made it possible for users to edit the information used by their advertising profile, it noted that changing the ad influences wouldn’t change the overall number of ads that users would see. That goes to show that while Facebook may be willing to let users opt for less accurately targeted ads, it won’t give up on showing them ads altogether.

And while Zuckerberg wants people to trust Facebook with their information, the new privacy strategy he talked about during the earnings call — of making it easier for users to share content privately — avoids acknowledging the fact that Facebook doesn’t have much to gain by continuing to try to get users to share everything publicly.

That’s because Facebook doesn’t need your photos and updates to be public in order to collect useful data about you, and collecting data is what Facebook’s revenue depends on. Facebook’s interest, at least in mature markets like the U.S., is no longer in gathering more users. Instead, it’s looking to attract advertisers and advertising dollars, so it’s in the site’s best interest to give users what they think they want — easier ways to share their content with select, smaller groups of friends — while ramping up collection of the data that’s valuable to advertisers. From there, it’s clear that Zuckerberg and Facebook’s privacy shift is less about the well-being of users and more about optimizing the process of getting users to share valuable data.

Efforts to rebuild users’ trust are likely pointless. In the age of targeted advertising, it seems less likely that users will trust the Facebooks of the world than tolerate them. The most important consideration will be for users to be aware of what they’re sharing, rather than finding ways to opt out of tracking and targeting altogether. So should you be worried about Facebook’s privacy policies? Not any more than you were before. It’s just important to know that Facebook hasn’t really changed its stance on privacy at all — it’s just trading one privacy battle for another, more lucrative one.

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