We Really Are Just Data For Sale In Facebook’s Eyes

We Really Are Just Data For Sale In Facebook’s Eyes

The release today by the British Parliament of the trove of internal Facebook emails from the Six4Three litigation offers an incredibly rich and unvarnished look at Facebook during a period when user growth appeared to outrank any consideration over user privacy or safety. The word “privacy” appears only in the context of retroactively addressing the “privacy risks” of an update that was already preparing to ship to mass harvest user call and SMS logs on Android, as well as a mention in the context of encouraging users to share using more permissive privacy settings. Even while the conversations at hand dealt primarily with partnerships, revenue and other business-related matters, rather than issues relating specifically to the philosophical vision of a company that aimed to connect the world, it is extraordinary that for a company that has portrayed itself so heavily as a benevolent public good, that so little attention is paid to the issue of what is best for users rather than what is best for the company. One stunning revelation in the emails is that the company actually entertained the idea of quite literally selling user data. Perhaps on the order of $0.10/user each year.” Developers could “pay” for the data by running advertisements or selling goods and whatever revenue was left over would be paid directly to Facebook in cash. Moreover, as the emails show, the company has gone to great and contorted lengths to structure arrangements that its subsequent public statements described truthfully, but incompletely. It is specifically noteworthy that in its denials the company has maintained that it did not “sell” user data, rather than a more encompassing denial that it has never structured an agreement outside of advertising sales that benefited it economically from its user data. In another case it discussed trading extended privileged access to user data in return for a license to use another company’s trademark, in essence bartering the data. Making its two billion users more aware of how their data is monetized or proposed to be monetized would allow them to make informed choices about whether the benefits they receive from the free service outweigh the frightening and Orwellian ways it is exploiting them. Zuckerberg complains that the media offers an unfair accounting of his company, yet he refuses to offer them a competing narrative beyond “trust us.” Perhaps it's finally time to stop trusting Facebook before its too late.

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The release today by the British Parliament of the trove of internal Facebook emails from the Six4Three litigation offers an incredibly rich and unvarnished look at Facebook during a period when user growth appeared to outrank any consideration over user privacy or safety. While the company has long outwardly projected an image of a benevolent public works project to connect the world and a careful and trustworthy steward of the intimate information entrusted to it, its internal emails and decisions laid bare in the email trove capture a quite ordinary commercial company bent on growth at all cost, discussing hiding its collection practices from users and even the possibility of directly selling access to user data. The only question now is whether policymakers across the world will reign in Facebook before it is too late.

The Six4Three emails offer a glimpse into the innerworkings of one of the most powerful and influential technology companies that today controls what nearly a quarter of the earth’s population sees and says online.

While the company has been quick to note that the emails provide only a slice of its internal discussions and specifically revolve around conversations relating to the issues at the core of the Six4Three case, they nonetheless offer a wide-ranging look at how the company viewed the dueling tensions of increasing growth versus protecting its users.

Perhaps most noteworthy in all of the conversations captured in the emails is the lack of concern for users themselves. The word “safety” never makes an appearance. The word “privacy” appears only in the context of retroactively addressing the “privacy risks” of an update that was already preparing to ship to mass harvest user call and SMS logs on Android, as well as a mention in the context of encouraging users to share using more permissive privacy settings.

Even while the conversations at hand dealt primarily with partnerships, revenue and other business-related matters, rather than issues relating specifically to the philosophical vision of a company that aimed to connect the world, it is extraordinary that for a company that has portrayed itself so heavily as a benevolent public good, that so little attention is paid to the issue of what is best for users rather than what is best for the company.

One stunning revelation in the emails is that the company actually entertained the idea of quite literally selling user data. None other than Zuckerberg himself in October 2012 offered the idea that “Pushing content to Facebook is always free. Reading anything, including friends, costs a lot of money. Perhaps on the order of $0.10/user each year.”

Developers could “pay” for the data by running advertisements or selling goods and whatever revenue was left over would be paid directly to Facebook in cash.

While the company denies that it ever implemented this idea with any of its partners, the very idea that the company’s most senior leadership would actually even consider it worthy of writing in a strategic vision email as a serious possibility for the company is nothing short of extraordinary.

Of course, even here we must simply blindly trust the company that it never sold user data in any…

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