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Why we can't stop debating whether Facebook sells data

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For some time now, the fact that Facebook doesn't sell your personal data directly to advertisers has
 
December 13 · Issue #265 · View online
The Interface
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.

Democracy
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In France, School Lessons Ask: Which Twitter Post Should You Trust?
Rising opposition has Amazon shopping for help
Amazon Won’t Say Whether Or Not It Works With ICE
High-Tech Degrees and the Price of an Avocado: The Data New York Gave to Amazon
YouTube removed 58 million videos in latest quarter
Evolving our Twitter Transparency Report: expanded data and insights
Elsewhere
Facebook expands Ad Breaks to 14 more countries, launches Watch globally on desktop
Facebook to Cut Funding for Some News Shows on Watch
Facebook wants customers to buy and watch pay TV on Facebook
Facebook's Carolyn Everson: Privacy is 'the foundation of our company'
How I Quit Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon
Where is Jack Dorsey’s charitable foundation?
YouTube Rewind 2018 is officially the most disliked video on YouTube
2018 in 14 charts: End of year look at tech trends and tribulations
Launches
Tumblr is back in Apple’s App Store following adult content ban
Takes
The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement is not a Facebook revolution
The ‘gilets jaunes’ and the populism myth ($)
What Happens When Facebook Goes the Way of Myspace?
Dear tech companies, I don’t want to see pregnancy ads after my child was stillborn
Google Glass Wasn't a Failure. It Raised Crucial Concerns
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.
Cabel
"I am very attached to the name 'Scrotal Recall'. An explanation is in order" https://t.co/5L9tjHp1ct
2:09 PM - 12 Dec 2018
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and personal data for sale: casey@theverge.com.
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