Facebook has been the subject of a number of very concerning news stories over the past few years, from not deleting user data to conducting and publishing emotionally manipulative research. But the social giant is getting ready to take it to a whole new level: selling your browsing data directly to advertising companies.
“But wait . . . doesn’t it already sell tons of data to advertisers?” you might be asking. Yes, it does. But there’s an important distinction that many people don’t realize: right now, the information that Facebook sells to advertisers has to do with your activity on Facebook: pages you like, people you follow, apps you connect, and so on. Until now, Facebook hasn’t sold any of the data it collects about your browsing outside of Facebook.
But that’s about to change: in an announcement on June 12, Facebook announced that it would begin selling users’ browsing data directly to advertisers, and that it would roll out new ads over the following weeks, meaning that soon you’ll see more targeted ads on Facebook, and advertisers will know even more about your and your habits, supposedly because when asking users about how ads can be improved, they said “they want to see ads that are more relevant to their interests.” (newsroom.fb.com)
Starting soon, if you’ve been searching for something—awesome coffee-making gear, for example—on Google or Amazon, you’ll notice more ads on Facebook for products that match your search. They could even be for the same brand of coffee maker that you’d been looking at just a moment ago. If this idea makes you uncomfortable, you’re not the only one. It’s already difficult to manage privacy with Facebook, and it’s likely to get more so.
Of course, this move isn’t hugely surprising—Facebook is the best example of a site where the users, and not the site itself, are the most valuable commodity, something that’s been talked about a lot as of late. And if Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that they’ll take whatever steps they want to make more money, because there’s no chance in hell that the 1.2 billion monthly users of the service will close their accounts.
Why Is This A Big Deal?
Because Facebook has always been collecting and selling data, it might not seem like a major issue that they’re now selling browsing information directly to advertisers. But this could signal a big shift in how Facebook interacts with its users and their data.
Online privacy and data security is a big deal, and people are starting to take note, calling for increased transparency and more limits on the power of companies to sell our data. Public opinion seems to lean toward the “give us more control over our own data, and don’t sell it if we don’t want you to” side.
The fact that Facebook is acting directly in contradiction to these requests in spite of public opinion shows a brazenness that some people weren’t expecting, and it creates some serious worries for privacy in the future. It’s not difficult to imagine Facebook continuing to gather more information and sell it to advertisers.
We have to ask ourselves when we will take action: when Facebook starts listening to our conversations through our cell phones and serving ads based on the products we talk about? When it starts using our webcams to see which brands of clothing we wear? These might seem far-fetched, but so did tracking a user’s every move online and selling the records to advertisers, just a few years ago.
In addition to the higher-level privacy concerns, there’s the “creepy” factor. A lot of people find it unnerving and creepy when they see ads on Facebook for things that they were just looking at on another site. And while Facebook claims that increased ad targeting is something that users are asking for, I haven’t seen any proof of this yet. (If you’re on either side of this particular argument, please leave a comment—I’d love to get a feel for how MakeUseOf readers feel about this issue.)
Why Does Facebook Have My Browsing History?
In short, because Facebook is ubiquitous across the web. Especially when you stay logged in, which most people probably do. If you’re on a page with a “Like” button, Facebook knows that you’re on that page, even if you don’t click that button—Facebook’s terms of service state that it can capture browsing information from these sites and use it for “security purposes” and to deliver ads.
As we learned recently, by agreeing to the terms and conditions of using Facebook, we’ve agreed to a huge amount of data being turned over and signing off on the social network’s seemingly limitless ability to do with it whatever it wants, sparking a lot of interest in blocking Facebook and other social networks from tracking you.
What Can I Do?
Although they haven’t made it easy, Facebook has offered an opt-out of this “service.” To find it, you’ll have to go to the Digital Advertising Alliance website and add Facebook to the list of companies that you don’t want customizing your ads (you can proceed directly to the Choices page to make this update). Make sure that any cookie-blocking software is disabled when you do this.
While you’re there, you might want to select a number of the other companies that are collecting and using your data to serve ads.
Unfortunately, the Digital Advertising Alliance opt-out isn’t known for being particularly effective, and your opt-out choices could potentially be lost when you clear your browsing data (or switch to another browser). So you might want to bookmark that page and check it regularly.
If you use the Facebook mobile app, you’ll have to take a few additional steps, as well. On iOS, open up the settings and go to General > Restrictions > Advertising and hit the switch for Limit Ad Tracking. In Android, you’ll have to go to Google Settings > Ads and select Opt out of interest-based ads.
Remember that just because you’re not allowing Facebook to use your browsing data to customize your ads doesn’t mean that they’re not collecting that data: they still have an eye on you, and they’re keeping a lot of data stored somewhere.
To fight back against this, you’ll have to take part in the larger discussion about privacy and data security—sign petitions, support privacy-focused organizations, and make your voice heard. If you want to take immediate action, you can use extensions like Ghostery or Do Not Track Plus if you’re not concerned about the ethical implications. And, of course, check out our guide to Facebook privacy.
What do you think about this move by Facebook? Does it upset you? Are you happy that you’ll be seeing more targeted ads? Do you feel that it’s a violation of your privacy? Share your thoughts below—I’d really like to hear what you think!