Facebook, Privacy, and the Use of Data

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Yves here. Given this article’s focus on Facebook as a monopoly, it’s surprising that it does not call for Facebook to be broken up.

By Joren De Wachter. a founding member of DSC Brussels and elected member of the Belgium NC of DiEM25. He’s a serial entrepreneur and investor in tech startups. Originally published at DiEM25

Would you give up your firstborn child for free WiFi?

Of course not – if you knew these terms and conditions. Except that is exactly what scores of people did when they were asked if they wanted free WiFi at Picadilly Circus, London. Nobody bothered to read the terms – which contained a clause that forces you to give up your firstborn child.

The same level of unknowing vulnerability applies to Facebook’s terms and conditions. You “freely” enter into a contract that is nonnegotiable and impossible to read, and yet carries implications far beyond the platform.

We now know that Facebook not only took our data, but also gave them to Cambridge Analytica, among many others. But which others? We don’t know.

Why not? The answer to that question breaks up into three pieces:

The first is that Facebook is a de facto monopoly. Its business model is based on avoiding competition at all cost. Buying Instagram was a perfect example.

The second is that the authorities by and large ignore Facebook’s monopoly position. They seem to think that, just because a monopoly is de facto, it can be left alone.

Of course, European law is quite clear on the question of monopolies: they are bad. The law offers both the authorities and private parties, such as customers or the competition, many tools to challenge monopoly actors. But European authorities have yet to adopt such a bold approach.

The third is that the law offers Facebook additional monopoly power in the form of “Intellectual Property” and “Trade Secrets.” Because of these monopoly rights, Facebook can shield, from you, the way it uses your data — e.g. the algorithms that decide which news is fake enough for you. In return, the governments get, oh, nothing. Neither do you.

The common element of these three pieces is monopoly. And here lies the solution: to break down Facebook’s monopolies.

Is that hard?

Yes and no. It can be done today, within the framework of existing law and policies. The only thing you need is common understanding of the issue, and political will to push through an effective solution.

One example would be to deny Facebook “protection” of the algorithms, code and APIs it uses to harvest your data. A practical way to do that would be to force Facebook to open up to anyone the terms on which data can be obtained and publish who does it and how much they pay for it. Logistically, that’s easy for Facebook to do: it’s basically opening part of their financial reporting with all the details.

And then you apply a couple of very simple principles:

First, Facebook may not use its monopolies to discriminate between anyone who uses the data. It must offer Fair, Reasonable, Open and Non-Discriminatory (FROND) licensing terms on the data it holds.

Second, Facebook needs to publish its algorithms and how they are used to select things such as your newsfeed.

Third, Facebook APIs to third parties may not be closed or materially altered by Facebook without the approval of the third parties who use them, and Facebook may not discriminate between third parties who use its APIs.

A second example would be to set up unionization of Facebook users. The terms and conditions of using the platform would then no longer be imposed by Facebook, but by its users, who negotiate those terms on their own behalf.

How do you enforce that? Again, by applying the law that forbids cartels and monopolies. Those laws already exist, and, when used properly, can be very effective.

The only problem is, of course, that any politician who would propose such rules might suddenly find themselves unelectable, because of some fake news stories selected by some secret algorithm, shown to the very people who could vote her out of office.

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  1. saurabh

    The solution to this problem existed: it was called home pages and blogs. For a joyous decade we made use of these and it was great, diverse, grass roots, challenging to conventional power. Then, as a species, we gave it up, because Facebook was slightly easier. This was all visible as it happened, but the complaints were met with a lot of just-shut-upping and counter complaints about how not using Facebook is “too hard”, as this comment thread will be. There is no way to blame elites for this: we, collectively, messed this up by being lazy. So shall we reap.

    1. jrs

      +1 Facebook wasn’t even much easier than the blogging software. It did most of the HTML etc. for you, there may have been times it was better to tinker with the HTML than use anything default, but refusing to do so wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle either. Most of that stuff was bought out by big players like Google as well eventually though. It was a much more interesting alive net back then, and that’s what people don’t know, how alive and easy it all was.

      1. The Rev Kev

        If this blog was on Facebook it would probably have been deactivated long ago for “violating the terms of services agreement.”
        What was that thing that Lambert said about depending on someone else’s platform?

    2. The Prescription Was Clear

      The solution to this problem existed: it was called home pages and blogs.

      Absolute nonsense, to demonstrate this, some questions shall be asked:

      – How does one set-up a computer such that it can act as a server?
      – How does one maintain and oversee said computer?
      – How does one set-up server software?
      – How does one maintain and oversee said software?
      – What are the costs?
      – How high are the costs?

      Note: having a personal web or e-mail server isn’t as simple as double clicking on a “My personal server – setup.exe” then following the dialog window by clicking “next-next-finish.”

  2. JTMcPhee

    “The law” and “regulation” will always run a poor third in the attempt, the race, to distill anything that is for the General Welfare out of the steaming pit of Opportunity and Ptofit and Disruption. Doubly hard when all the institutions of “legitimacy” that validate and get the mopes to accept or kneel to law and regulation in the globalized flat world of Trade, are mostly owned by the cancerous tissues and parasies and predators of Bidness. …

    Those “effective laws that already exist” are just words, and can be ignored or re-written per the preferences and determinations of the Slick Willies who rise to rulership by dint of sociopathic intensity of application to their personal interests. Within a frame that says, always, “I own my impunity and immunity, I take my pleasure where and when I will, and global ecological collapse and global war? Pas de probleme, parce que Apres moi le deluge…”

    I write as a former “regulator” with the Environmental Protection Agency, I got some immersion in the nitty-gritty of how potent the Greed Principle and its cultists are.

  3. Yeo

    Evgeny morozov and the Barcelona initiative for tech sovereignty have a good alternative. Start treating data as crucial infrastructure for the future much like roads electricity network etc are. Then questions of ownership and terms of use naturally follow.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      That figure is grossly distorted by the fact that Facebook outsources the employment of many of their regular ’employees’. They are employed via agencies, so even though they are working in offices with big Facebook signs, they are not actual ‘Facebook’ employees. A friend of mine used to work in HR for FB and she said many of those leaving (they have an enormous churn) were horrified to find they were not allowed to put Facebook on their resumes – they were told they could only put use the agents (contractors) name. They genuinely believed that they worked for the Zuck.

      Their employment strategy is to hire lots of graduates via agents on low wages, with only a small selected few (I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what criteria they use) eventually ‘hired’ as core FB employees.

  4. nihil obstet

    Good commercial codes of laws are necessary. The courts have allowed corporations to exempt themselves from law through getting “voluntary” waivers of rights from customers, through arbitration clauses, agreements that corporations can take and use private personal data, and the like. It’s not just monopoly — all the providers of services necessary for life in modern society from banking, insurance, telecommunications services, on, have grabbed them that sweet legal immunity. It needs to end.

    1. Distrubed Voter

      Only if you end regular corporations and only allow proprietorships and partnerships. But then you will have to scale back the good and bad of gigantism (it was a dino eat dino world). Think end-stage of the Cretaceous … bigger isn’t better in the longer term.

    2. jrs

      Yes better laws. Even if it was split up into baby bells, we would really have no guarantees that those little facebooks wouldn’t do the same thing. Consumer pressure? Oh because markets … the invisible hand will solve it if only we have enough competition right? But we all know that really only gets you so far.

      I guess if the problem being dealt with is media consolidation (and Facebook is a media source) then maybe breaking it up makes sense … only we’re allowing media consolidation all over the place elsewhere so it seems somewhat silly to focus only on Facebook for that issue.

  5. Other JL

    was shared with, and share it with the user in some transferrable format. I really don’t know how that last one will work, but the intent seems appropriate.

    You don’t hear about it much in the US, but GDPR is a really big deal for personal privacy and user rights.

    Disclosure: I work at a FAANG.

    1. Other JL

      Somehow half my comment was lost (my misuse I’m sure).

      But the key statement was, if the problem is people have no visibility into how Facebook uses their data, GDPR seems like a much more direct solution than trying to split up Facebook.


    I get super confused when reading articles about this. it seems like the lack of specific expertise may serve only to confuse the very important issues

    there are three main elements for targeted marketing

    1 – identify the best responders to a given product, or algorithmically rank order the entire population contained in the consumer database

    2 – create a message, and a frequency campaign to deliver the message to these targets

    3 – use some media to deliver the message (catalog, phone call, postcard, banner ad)

    facebook controls all three inside their platform and they don’t leak any data

    They are continually gunning for purchase data to close the loop using cc data, datalogix, epsilon and ibehavior co-op retail databases.

    Absolute monopoly, but it may help to split up the issues

    1. sawdust

      Yeah, this article isn’t helping. I completely agree the issues lie in breaking down and examining elements of targeted marketing. It’s a good place to start for examining all sorts of optimized loops companies use in the most addictive apps/websites, etc. I don’t believe Facebook is a monopoly but arguing about that feels secondary.

    2. rfdawn

      Facebook controls all three inside their platform and they don’t leak any data

      That’s a big assertion. Leakage is a one-way process like toothpaste out of a tube. Any data uploaded or just stored on any database may/will end up public regardless of any privacy policy. Ask Equifax.

      I’d say any data uploaded may as well be intentionally published. If I’m proved right, this may also become a valid legal argument.

  7. sawdust

    Facebook isn’t a monopoly. Google makes twice as much advertising. Most reasonable estimates put facebook between 15-25% of digital marketing. And that’s allowing digital marketing to be it’s own market separate from more traditional marketing.

    Facebook also doesn’t sell data. Statements like “A practical way to do that would be to force Facebook to open up to anyone the terms on which data can be obtained and publish who does it and how much they pay for it” aren’t valid and either mean the author is being intentionally misleading or hasn’t been following this issue (how many times did Zuckerberg repeat this to escape valid lines of questioning… 10?). And how can this article not mention GDPR?

    I’m not happy to be the one sitting here and defending Facebook. The issues of data privacy & sharing, objectives of algorithm generated content, and the anonymous echo chamber created online are all important problems we need to tackle. But the level of misinformed & lazy ‘expert’ analysis is counter-productive. Making this about Facebook instead of how people act on the internet or the reckless was companies use our data will end poorly.

    1. HotFlash

      I am not an expert, most certainly, and I am sorry you are not happy. However, I have ‘opted out’ of Facebook (ie, don’t go there) incl ‘deleting’ my account twice, about two years apart, using the procedures they specified. Guess what! I still have an account! And the kicker is, I have to sign in to try to delete the account again! But signing in automatically reactivates it! I do not think this is a neutral accident.

      This leads me to conclude that FB is not operating in good faith.

      As to your comment that

      Google makes twice as much advertising. Most reasonable estimates put Facebook between 15-25% of digital marketing.

      I do not dispute it. What I believe FB is selling is *our data*, not (just) advertising, and I believe they are selling it to (the) government(s). This is info that J Edgar would die for! If FB, which, I understand, is a public company, would only be so kind as to break that out on their financials, I would be so happy.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Regarding that last section of your comment. Years ago I read an account by a reporter who was visiting Facebook’s headquarters and was being given the complete tour. He relates that he was in a meeting with more than a few people and had Zuckerburg there when there was an interruption. He said a group of big-wigs from the FBI (from near the top) came in and the FBI guy went over and shook Zuckerburg’s hand and thanked him personally for all the great work that he did and how they were of such help to the FBI. I remember thinking at the time: ‘Hmmmmmmm’.

  8. cnchal

    Surprisingly, there is no mention of all the Farcebook co-conspirators with their embedded code and buttons. One cannot opt out of the panopticon because you can’t know with certainty that the web page link you are going to is hooked up or not.

    I think the solution is that once a minute, they dump the database, or simply make it illegal to collect information as they are doing now.

    1. JTMcPhee

      How will you know if they are complying with that “make data collection illegal” new law? How will you know if the enforcers are able to monitor compliance, or enforcing the law if they do? How will you ever be sure that it’s not just some false face(book) front Matrix Shell that lets you think you still have “free will” (aka “consumer choice”?

      Even the Really Smart Young Techies cannot begin to keep up with all the ways they themselves can get Hoovered — didn’t Faceboy Zuckerberg express surprise that “his” company, which is owned by whom, again? Jim Haygood has a “position” in it, direct share ownership or through a fund of funds of funds? had so much personal info on Himself, and I read he puts tape over the “eyes” of his Smart Devices…

      Out of the control of mopes, who like all serfs have to accept that such is the way things are. It’s like the Domesday Book. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domesday_Book Once the data are in hand, the Lords OWN us…

      1. cnchal

        How will you know if they are complying with that “make data collection illegal” new law?

        I suppose if you are on the receiving end of targeted ads, one could get an inkling. My last sentence wasn’t too well thought out, what with the general lawlessness by the biggs and richies.

        It was actually humorous to read about Apple bragging that “leakers” would be caught because their employees are subject to their own personal workplace panopticon. Caught in a web of their own making.

        What to do? Perhaps an idea is to pollute what “they” have on you. Make their Ayeye believe you are a man when actually a woman, click on stuff you would never buy to tweak Ayeye’s nose, make them waste resources, and generally have an attitude of deception and non cooperation when it comes to the panopticon. What does Farcebook really have on me? I don’t know, and I am not going to get in touch to find out. I have been getting adds for fat ladies clothes so perhaps my plan of resistance isn’t too far out there.


    facebook is the new tv, one channel only
    advertisers have no right to audit impressions, unlike google
    facebook has no email address, no phone number and no obligation to answer inquiries on their own platform
    If you did not have a monopoly, how could you enforce such a one sided arrangement?

  10. Kurtismayfield

    Facebook is a monopoly in the electronic addictive dopamine/emotional feedback loop system. Google and Apple don’t stoop so low to show you emotional montages of your children five years ago, or videos about rescuing dogs that guarantee an emotional response. Their whole game is getting people addicted, this model is the one that needs to be stopped.

  11. derechos

    Today Yahoo email accounts have a pop-up demanding that users agree to new terms of service and privacy policy through “Oath”, a Verizon company. It seems to actually remove any pretense of privacy for emails. When you use our Services to communicate with others or post, upload or store content (such as comments, photos, voice inputs, videos, emails, messaging services and attachments).

    “Oath analyzes and stores all communications content, including email content from incoming and outgoing mail. This allows us to deliver, personalize and develop relevant features, content, advertising and Services.
    When you otherwise use our Services, such as title queries, watch history, page views, search queries, view the content we make available or install any Oath software such as plugins.”

    1. Steve H.

      Yup, FOSTA fallout.

      It looks like the next twist of the dial is some form of banning ye fake newes. Since wapo put NC in the category, I had considered that if NC was pulled from searches etc, we could find a way to communicate through a non-platform format like email. Not pretty but doable, possibly not survivable but clear-eyed enough to see a way that others wouldn’t.

      However, it looks like the extensions into email would undercut this. The Microsoft Services Agreement list, for example, covers a mail service and Office. An alternate email account could still be censored by not letting a Word attachment be allowed.

      I went ahead and accepted Yahoo. It’s tied to ATT and my only other option is Comcast, which would be way more headaches. The monopoly argument sinks on similar action by multiple players, and non-compliant entities get crushed by banishment from normal communication exchanges. This is sick.

      I read recently that after a head injury, the immune system sometimes tags glial cells and starts wiping out the support structure for neuronal connections. I’ve seen overnight personality changes from people who’d had head injuries in the past. Things seem okay until suddenly they’re not.

    2. Arthur J

      So there’s a simple solution: Don’t use Yahoo services. Or Google. Or Facebook.

      You’d think civilization didn’t exist prior to the creation of Google or Facebook the way people go on about they are forced to use these services. No, actually you don’t have to use them. Really. There are all kinds of private forums that people use who have shared interests. Gosh, there’s this thing called the telephone that can connect you to other people whereupon you can talk to them for hours.

      When someone says “oh, I have to use Facebook” what they mean to say is they are too lazy to even pick up the phone. I have no sympathy for them, or anybody else who uses Google services and then complains that their account got closed and they lost all their pictures or something. Don’t want someone else to put your stuff on public display or throw it away on you ? Simple: Don’t give it to them.

      1. landline

        Absolutely. The depth of the smartphone and facebook addictions is startling. Since I have don’t have a smartphone (any cell phone, actually) or use social media, I remain amazed how things that barely existed 10 years ago have become so intrinsic to peoples’ beings.

        Scary stuff. A good dealer gives the first one for free. Smartphone and social media, especially facebook, addicts behave just like heroin addicts. Gimme one more shot, hit, drink, text, post….

        I see guys pissing in public urinals with one hand on their dicks and the other playing with their phones. All the time. Just a few hours ago in fact at a local cinema. You can’t wait a minute?

        1. jrs

          Yea really straight out ADDICTION. 12 step groups needed. If you use it for your business or work I give some pass, I give a lot of passes for whatever people have to do to make a living in these days of economic collapse, including using FB for business or for having linked-in profiles for such purposes etc. But only a few people really need it for that, and other than that it seems straight out addiction.

      2. phemfrog

        I get what you are saying, but I think you are being too simplistic. Here is my own situation.

        I have a facebook account. I use it because it is the only place where information about my children is available (school events, fundraisers, special dress up days, etc). Could i call the teacher and the PTA? Sure. But i would have to do that every day. I dont think they would like that very much. So there are social norms to take into account here. Also, the school and teachers regularly post photos of MY MINOR CHILDREN on their FB pages. The only way i can monitor this activity is by having an account. I can opt out of some of these photos, but they punish your child by not allowing them to be in the yearbook (if you dont sign the photography consent). And even then, the moms of their friends post photos of them on FB. It is nearly impossible to keep them off.

        My solution is to have an account with minimal personal information in it. But Im sure they get more info than i want anyway.

        Also, as the news stories of late have pointed out, you dont have to have an account for FB to have your info. If you are friends with someone (in their phone contacts) then FB has your #.

        1. Arthur J

          Come on, this is exactly what I’m talking about. No, you –don’t need– a Facebook account. Yves will probably slap me with some demerits here, but anyway: how about you ask your kids what’s happening at school ? Do you really think if there’s a play or trip they want to go on, they won’t tell you ? How much trouble would it be to browse the school website ? Is the school FB page public, maybe you could watch it if you must without an FB account of your own. If they really are obsolete, how much effort would it be to call once a week even, to see what’s going on. Are your kids not worth the effort of even a single phone call ? Are you serious ?

          What’s the big deal about your kids pictures being posted to Facebook ? Do you honestly think the other kids or their parents don’t know who your kids are ? If that bothers you, as apparently it does, then you say the option is there to not sign the photography consent form. So DON’T SIGN IT. If you don’t want your kids pictures posted on FB by other parents or the teachers, why then do you want them in the yearbook ? Do you really think general members of the public aren’t going to see those pictures ? You can’t have it both ways, say you don’t want your kids faces public and then complain that they won’t be in the yearbook for everyone to see.

          Facebook is not required to live a life. Really. It isn’t.

    1. ambrit

      oaf inhabit serendipity bubble! Happy oaf!
      Now oaf must tell rest of commentariat how oaf utilizes tachyons to communicate.

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    New York Magazine is running a series of interviews with various computer and digital people about this whole “Silicon Valley Nastiness” issue. I stumbled across one on the reddit, Its an interview with Richard Stallman who is described as being a “legendary programmer”. It starts with the extracted quote . . .

    “No company is so important its existence justifies setting up a police state.”
    ( A conversation with legendary programmer Richard Stallman on the real meaning of “privacy rights” and why he only ever uses cash.) By Noah Kulwin

    Here is the link.

    1. The Prescription Was Clear

      Stallman may have been right on the issues that need to be fixed, but wrong (and/or co-opted by the wrong crowd) on proposed solutions; unless we just stop using problematic products and services (which does work, BTW), but that’s not an actual solution of a given problem, that’s removal of a domain as such.

Comments are closed.