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Why we can’t stop debating whether Facebook sells data

Why we can’t stop debating whether Facebook sells data


We want another world, but we have trouble describing it

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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

For some time now, the fact that Facebook doesn’t sell your personal data directly to advertisers has been a shield that company executives use to protect the company from criticism over its privacy policies. Unfortunately for Facebook, critics have tended to pick up this shield and beat the company with it.

Michal Kosinski, an assistant professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, is the latest to go after Facebook’s favorite self-defense mantra. In a widely shared op-ed in the New York Times, Kosinski argues that Facebook’s promise not to sell your data is a distraction from the fact that it profits enormously from it:

When the company argues that it is not selling data, but rather selling targeted advertising, it’s luring you into a semantic trap, encouraging you to imagine that the only way of selling data is to send advertisers a file filled with user information. Congress may have fallen for this trap set up by Mr. Zuckerberg, but that doesn’t mean you have to. The fact that your data is not disclosed in an Excel spreadsheet but through a click on a targeted ad is irrelevant. Data still changes hands and goes to the advertiser.

Facebook’s claiming that it is not selling user data is like a bar’s giving away a free martini with every $12 bag of peanuts and then claiming that it’s not selling drinks. Rich user data is Facebook’s most prized possession, and the company sure isn’t throwing it in for free.

That second paragraph showed up in a lot of screenshots Wednesday evening on media Twitter, even if Kosinski’s zinger didn’t really scan (what is Facebook’s $12 bag of peanuts, exactly?) and the second sentence isn’t even in dispute. Of course Facebook profits greatly from the data we volunteer to it; the question is how we feel about it — and, perhaps, what to do about it.

Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of ads, rebutted the op-ed in a Twitter thread today. “You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but we don’t sell people’s data. Period,” he wrote. “That’s not a dodge or semantics, it’s a fact. We don’t sell or share personal information.”

Between Kosinski and Goldman, we have a perfect Twitter debate — one in which each side can win by being right in important ways, while being wrong in others. Goldman can say “actually, we don’t sell your data,” while Kosinski can say “actually, you basically do,” and the only question is whether we will be having this debate longer than “what role did social media play in the 2016 election.” (I’d put them at even odds?)

Still, Goldman draws a meaningful distinction here, insofar as there are giant corporations that really do sell your data. They have wonderfully dystopian sci-fi names: Acxiom, Experian, Epsilon, Exactis, and — perhaps my favorite — Recorded Future. They are quite profitable — although not, say, Facebook-level profitable. And while I don’t know that anyone aware of their existence feels great about them, generally speaking we aren’t up in arms about the Epsilons of the world the way we are about data privacy on Facebook.

As is pointed out whenever the does-Facebook-sell-data debate rears its head — this feels like the third or fourth time we’ve had it this year — renting access to anonymized data sets, as Facebook does, is a much better business than the one-time purchases and subscriptions offered by data brokers. When Facebook says it doesn’t sell your data, it often implies that to do so would be a terrible breach of trust. The implication is that the company deserves moral credit for its business model, even though it’s at least as much a revenue consideration as it is anything else.

To his credit, Goldman more or less said this today. “It’s is not in our business interest to sell or share personal information with anyone,” he wrote. “Our business model only works if it works for people — if people don’t, they won’t come to Facebook, advertisers won’t be able to reach them, and we won’t have a business.”

Goldman had another peace offering for the more privacy-minded among us: a link to the Ads Preference Manager, which you can use to prevent Facebook from targeting you based on what it knows about you. (And maybe you’ll even learn something about yourself when you visit, as I did. Apparently I am a frequent visitor to Mediterranean restaurants, at least statistically.)

Of course, it’s unlikely that a significant percentage of Facebook users will modify these settings — and I suspect that Goldman knows that. A more helpful question might be what kind of advertising-based business model the majority of us can live with. As Benedict Evans said Wednesday evening:

We don’t want irrelevant ads or ads that are too relevant. We don’t want anyone to know what we bought but we want the advertiser to know we already bought that. And we refuse (mostly) to pay but we don’t really want ads anyway. Our feelings about online ads are pretty unresolved

The tensions that Evans describes are real — I’m not sure I could get a supermajority of Americans to agree on a path forward. Which is perhaps why we find ourselves having the same debates over and over. We know we want something other than the current data privacy regime, but we still can’t quite name it.


’They don’t care’: Facebook fact-checking in disarray as journalists push to cut ties

Sam Levin explores the dissatisfaction that some of Facebook fact-checkers have with its fact-checking program. The company published a lengthy response. I’m skeptical about the efficacy of fact-checking generally, but as part of a larger toolkit of efforts to fight misinformation I think Facebook should still probably press ahead with (and refine) it.

Kim LaCapria recently left Snopes as a content manager and fact-checker partly due to her frustrations with the Facebook arrangement. She said it quickly seemed clear that Facebook wanted the “appearance of trying to prevent damage without actually doing anything” and that she was particularly upset to learn that Facebook was paying Snopes: “That felt really gross … Facebook has one mission and fact-checking websites should have a completely different mission.”

Binkowski said that on at least one occasion, it appeared that Facebook was pushing reporters to prioritize debunking misinformation that affected Facebook advertisers, which she thought crossed a line: “You’re not doing journalism any more. You’re doing propaganda.”

In France, School Lessons Ask: Which Twitter Post Should You Trust?

Adam Satariano and Elian Peltier look at France’s internet literacy initiative:

Since 2015, the French government has increased funding for courses about the downsides of the online world. About 30,000 teachers and other educational professionals receive government training on the subject every year. In some places, the local authorities require young adults to complete an internet literacy course to receive welfare benefits, such as a monthly stipend.

The French Culture Ministry has doubled its annual budget for the courses to 6 million euros (about $6.8 million), and the Education Ministry is adding an elective high school course on the internet and the media to the national curriculum, making it available to thousands of students. Some educators are calling for the courses to be mandatory, taught alongside history and math.

Rising opposition has Amazon shopping for help

Greg David identifies a potential roadblock to Amazon’s quest to build Regional Office 1 in New York:

Blocking Amazon’s arrival won’t be easy. The City Council was cut out of the approval process by putting the state in charge of overseeing the project. The Cuomo Administration has also claimed it has existing funds to pay for the incentives and won’t be required to seek legislative approval.

However, most experts say that at some point the administration will have to seek approval of the state Public Authorities Control Board, which consists of representatives of the governor, Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker. The PACB is the body that killed the Bloomberg administration’s Olympic stadium bid but approved the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. It is through the PACB that Gianaris could exercise the most influence.

Amazon Won’t Say Whether Or Not It Works With ICE

Davey Alba and Caroline O’Donovan try to get to the bottom of Amazon’s potential relationship with ICE over facial recognition technology:

Approached by BuzzFeed News after the subject came up during a hearing between Amazon policy representatives and New York City Council members Wednesday morning, Amazon would not say outright that the company does not work with ICE. A company spokesperson said it was policy for Amazon to not talk about its clients.

The question of whether Amazon provides facial recognition services to ICE arose when Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, brought up the company’s Rekognition platform and tools in response to a question from council Speaker Corey Johnson about its work with ICE. Johnson did not mention Rekognition in the question, but Huseman brought up the service voluntarily.

High-Tech Degrees and the Price of an Avocado: The Data New York Gave to Amazon

Karen Weise looks at the data New York turned over to Amazon as part of its courtship process and finds that while it was mostly public, putting it together in one place likely took a lot of work:

Amazon asked for detailed information on the availability of machine-learning specialists, user-experience designers and hardware engineers — three jobs critical to its growth. The proposal says that New York University awarded 64 undergraduate and 63 graduate degrees in integrated digital media, which includes design, in the past three years. Amazon also learned that Columbia University has outreach programs for STEM programs for K-12 schools in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan that reached 3,682 students last year, and that Columbia planned to expand the offering.

The data, while not flashy, is core to the ability to understand where the best pool of potential employees live and could be developed, which drove the search for the new headquarters.

YouTube removed 58 million videos in latest quarter

That’s a lot of videos! From YouTube’s latest transparency report:

More than 7.8 million of those videos were taken down because they violated community guidelines. The other 50.2 million were taken down as YouTube removed 1.67 million channels. 

The online video platform said 72 percent of the videos removed for violating guidelines in the latest quarter were “spam or misleading,” 10.2 percent were removed out of concern for “child safety” and 9.9 percent were removed for including “nudity or sexual content,” according to its latest report. 

Evolving our Twitter Transparency Report: expanded data and insights

Twitter’s 2018 Transparency Report, consistent with all transparency reports that I have ever read, shows an ever-increasing number of demands from government entities for user information:

The latest Twitter Transparency Report shows that Twitter received approximately 80% more global legal demands, impacting more than twice as many accounts compared to the previous reporting period. Similar to the last reporting period, roughly 87% of the total global volume originated from only two countries: Russia and Turkey.

Twitter also received 10% more government information requests (combined emergency disclosure requests and non-emergency requests), which is the largest percentage increase since our July-December 2015 report.


Facebook expands Ad Breaks to 14 more countries, launches Watch globally on desktop

Facebook finished rolling out its video tab globally on the desktop as well as mobile, and is introducing mid-roll advertising to more companies. (It also renewed four of its original shows.) But the most notable thing to me about all this is Facebook’s statistical self-own regarding video watch time. The company saw fit to brag that 400 million people spent “at least one minute” on Watch over the past month — inventing my favorite new metric, which I’m calling Time Accidentally Spent.

Facebook to Cut Funding for Some News Shows on Watch

Jessica Toonkel, Tom Dotan and Beejoli Shah report that Facebook is already planning to reduce funding to individual news programs, and that publishers have no idea how they’re supposed to fund them using the company’s existing ad tools:

At least two media executives said privately any cutback in funding could make it difficult for them to continue producing their shows. While they’re happy with the audiences their shows have drawn, the news executives complain that the ad revenue has been underwhelming. Some have begun discussing other ways to make money on their shows, such as sponsorships. 

Facebook wants customers to buy and watch pay TV on Facebook

Facebook is talking to pay TV channels including HBO, Showtime and Starz about a proposal to sell those companies’ streaming TV services on Facebook, Peter Kafka reports:

Industry executives believe TV programmers will expect Facebook to shell out advance payments for multiple-year deals, which Facebook would recoup by pocketing some of the channels’ subscription fees. Platforms like Apple and Amazon generally keep 15 percent to 30 percent of any subscription revenue they generate.

Facebook’s Carolyn Everson: Privacy is ‘the foundation of our company’

On the occasion of Facebook opening up a one-day pop-up kiosk in Bryant Park to answer users’ privacy questions, chief marketing officer Carolyn Everson said some extremely thinking-face-emoji things to Kerry Flynn:

EVERSON: We learned a lot of lessons post Cambridge Analytica, but one of the most important ones is that we do have a tremendous amount of tools for consumers to control those privacy settings and yet except most consumers, or many consumers don’t know how to use them, or we have not yet done all we can do to make sure that people are comfortable with our privacy checkup. We care deeply, as deep as a company can care about privacy. It’s the foundation of our company, and we want people to know that we care. We want them to use the tools that we built and know how serious we are about it.

How I Quit Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon

Dangerous radical Daniel Oberhaus spends a month without using products from Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. It’s basically impossible to do so — AWS hosts a lot of websites — but Oberhaus finds that quitting Facebook is the easiest:

I have been off Facebook for a few months now and my only regret is that I didn’t leave sooner. Although there is admittedly something of a phantom-limb effect right after leaving—pulling out my phone in response to imaginary pings from Messenger or reflexively navigating to the Facebook login page only to realize I no longer had a profile—the feeling that I was always missing something quickly subsided. I go out with friends and attend events just as much as I did before. I have no qualms about missing events that I would’ve received a mass Facebook invite to because now I live in blissful ignorance of their occurrence. Contrary to my expectations, my FOMO is at its lowest point in years.

Where is Jack Dorsey’s charitable foundation?

Owen Thomas writes that Jack Dorsey started a “charitable foundation” in 2015 — it was really just a donor-advised fund, which requires no public disclosures — but then maybe never did anything with it.

YouTube Rewind 2018 is officially the most disliked video on YouTube

Everyone is mad at YouTube about everything, and none of their grievances featured in the site’s 2018 content-marketing video, and now everyone is mad about that, too. The video now has received more than 10 million dislikes, Julia Alexander reports: an all-time record.

2018 in 14 charts: End of year look at tech trends and tribulations

Lots of good charts here from Rani Molla, but the one that ought to chill social companies the most is the one of their user bases slipping into decline.


Tumblr is back in Apple’s App Store following adult content ban

Apple banned Tumblr from the App Store last month over issues related to child pornography issues. Since then, Tumblr has volunteered to eliminate all porn, and users are claiming the entire service might as well be dead. But in the meantime, the app is back!


The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement is not a Facebook revolution

Jen Schradie says that “populist movements that seem to arise out of nowhere are not new to the digital era” — and that Facebook’s role in the Yellow Vest protests has been overstated:

The problem with the pendulum swing of “Hooray, the Internet connects!” to “Boo, the Internet deceives!” is that neither explanation for protest takes into account the community ties before the protests began but more importantly, the broader structural crisis that brought people together in the first place.

This is a movement that is linked to power and economic differences – not just people feeling a financial squeeze at the end of the month but also eyeing the growing inequality between the elites and the working class all over France. And they’re not spending valuable time at protests or risking arrest because they are dupes to fake news. They are embedded in a societal context that drives their participation.

The ‘gilets jaunes’ and the populism myth ($)

Simon Kuper argues that the Yellow Vest protests aren’t even really that interesting, in the grand scheme of things:

Populist movements may be the past, not the future. In November’s midterms, Trump’s Republicans lost the popular vote for the House of Representatives by 8.6 per cent — the biggest defeat for a majority party since records began in 1942. Meanwhile, as Brexit becomes increasingly hilarious, polls consistently show that most Britons now oppose it. Approval of the EU across the rest of Europe is the highest since 1983, says the European Commission’s polling wing. 

What Happens When Facebook Goes the Way of Myspace?

John Herrman wonders whether the end of Facebook will see it sold off to an ad-tech company someday, along with all your data:

The advertising data exposed in a user’s personal Facebook archive is, of course, just a sliver of what is available to the company. Facebook’s real profile of who you are — the one that it uses to fill your feeds and show you ads — is far more comprehensive. The company’s relentless accumulation of user data isn’t just a grab for power or a default behavior. It’s a long-term investment. You may forget Facebook; it could happen sooner than you expect. But it’s not likely to forget you.

Dear tech companies, I don’t want to see pregnancy ads after my child was stillborn

Gillian Brockell writes about tech platforms’ discovery that she was pregnant — and subsequent inability to detect that her baby was stillborn, making basic web surfing incredibly fraught:

But didn’t you also see me Googling “braxton hicks vs. preterm labor” and “baby not moving”? Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement post with keywords like “heartbroken” and “problem” and “stillborn” and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?

Google Glass Wasn’t a Failure. It Raised Crucial Concerns

Rose Eveleth says that the failure of Google Glass was a win for humankind:

The end of privacy can feel a bit like climate change: two dystopian futures we’re hurtling towards with no exit in sight. They both feel impossible to resist, impossible to change with our individual decisions. But only one of them actually is. While real solutions to climate change live or die in the hands of a small number of mega-corporations, security and privacy is actually something we can all impact. Unlike switching to a metal straw, drawing lines in the sand for always-on listening devices does make a difference. A legal difference even. And that’s worth fighting for, if only so we can trash-talk Google Glass in the privacy of our own homes, without our Google Assistant tattling on us.

And finally ...

Cabel Sasser is best known as the co-founder of software studio Panic. In a popular Twitter thread this week, he revealed himself to be a fan of the former XBox Live Support Forum, in which banned users would plead their cases for reinstatement to moderators — and often receive thoughtful replies.

The complaints are often very funny — so sorry for the loss of your gamertag, Scrotal Recall — but there’s a lesson here for a company like Facebook, which is currently contemplating a Supreme Court. What Sasser has found here is a kind of case law — and the rudiments of a justice system. And so it’s fun to read, but also useful.

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