At the end of this week (specifically, on March 23) I’ll be deleting my Facebook account. Not just “taking a break” from it. Deleting it. Or at least, as much of it as Facebook will really delete.
On March 17 it came to light that Facebook has been allowing companies to collect profile data without users’ knowledge or consent, and that this has been going on since at least 2014. Facebook has spun this as not a security breach (though it is). And even if you buy their version, it’s almost worse, since it’s been a matter of policy by which Facebook has profited from the betrayal of its users. This story in the Guardian is a comprehensive enough description of what happened. There will probably be more details as investigations get started, but don’t expect Facebook to be exonerated.
What’s the big deal?
If you think you’re not one of the 50 million people whose every post, social connection and personal information isn’t available to the highest bidder, think again. This was targeted at Brits and Americans. If you have ever seen any of your “friends” post an “I took this quiz and here’s what it said” post, your information has been given to the people behind those quizzes, regardless of your privacy settings — because Facebook allowed them to get profile info of every friend of the person who took it.
There’s a saying in internet business: “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” What that means is that if you’re not paying a company like Facebook for the services you receive, it’s because that company is making money by giving their real, paying customers access to you.
Advertisements, for example. If Facebook can attract lots of people to their network and have you and millions of other people spend lots of time on their site, advertisers will pay Facebook to show you their ads. We’re familiar with this kind of thing. Newspapers and magazines have been doing it for years. And we can decide whether to spend much time looking at those ads. And back in the day, newspapers and magazines would sell your name and address to other advertisers that would send you junk mail. Remember junk mail? It was an inconvenience. We all made fun of it. We complained about it as we threw it away. But still, you could throw it away in the privacy of your own trash can, and the advertisers were none the wiser.
Unlike newspapers, companies like Facebook track how much time you spend looking at ads, whether you click on them, even whether you hover your mouse over them as if you’re tempted to click on them but don’t. Over time, they collect a staggering amount of data about you. They sell that data to advertisers. When they’re honest, they don’t sell the actual data. They sell paying customers the use of their algorithms, their data processing programs that sift through that data, which “targets” you with particular ads you’re more likely to click on. When they’re honest, their paying customers don’t actually get to see your data, and they don’t get to run their own targeting software on the data. When they’re honest, “what happens on Facebook, stays on Facebook” (or whatever service it may be). If you’ve signed up and agreed to that mile-long “terms of service” legalese, you’re agreed to that kind of bargain. You’ve decided that the benefits of having online “friends” or playing Candy Crush is worth the online junk mail you’re going to get.
But what Facebook did is actually give your data to other people and let them run their own data mining software on it. You and I didn’t agree to it, and in spite of assurances about privacy policies and security settings, didn’t have any control over it. In fact, those settings were an elaborate hoax designed to make us think we had control over who gets to see our stuff when in reality anyone willing to pay could have anything they wanted on us. (Well, Facebook will probably say it’s covered in their terms of service, but it will take a staggering amount of money to sue them about it.) And those companies that now have that personal data about you and me can, in turn, sell it to anyone whose buying.
Hit them where it hurts.
It’s one thing to decide for yourself that you’re going to trade off some of your personal data in exchange for the privilege of catching up with old friends online. I’ll agree to allow a company to offer access to my eyeballs for their ads if the service they’re “giving” me is worth it. But I refuse to be a cash cow for a company that over the past couple years has shown itself to be unscrupulous about trading my trust for their bottom line. I’m pulling the plug.
I know that I’m just one. My exit from Facebook isn’t likely to cause the company to suffer catastrophic loss of revenue. But at this point, it’s simply unethical to participate in a network that is, at it’s root violating the trust of its users. What might I do (take a quiz? click an ad?) that inadvertently exposes all my “friends” to loss of privacy, or worse? What might I post, thinking it’s “just for friends” that may some day end up being used against not just me but others, in unexpected ways?
To all my friends, I will miss seeing the pictures of your cats and children in your feed. Fortunately, there are still other ways to stay in touch, and I hope you will. My best advice to you is to get out while you still can. Don’t be a body in a bag somewhere in their Matrix, being sucked dry while they keep you locked in some kind of dream world. Get off your screen and take your dog for a walk. You’ll be glad you did.