Curious whether your data is sold to Facebook advertisers? Well, that’s a hard question for Facebook, and the company has published a blog post on the matter.
In it, it insists that you are not the product and that it’s not selling your data to anyone. Just because Facebook says that, however, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. What’s clear is that you can’t opt out of ads completely, as long as you want to use Facebook.
Let’s start with the answer to a question Facebook thinks you may be asking yourself, “If I’m not paying for Facebook, am I the product?”
No. Our product is social media – the ability to connect with the people that matter to you, wherever they are in the world. It’s the same with a free search engine, website or newspaper. The core product is reading the news or finding information – and the ads exist to fund that experience.
For you, the user, what Facebook says above is right, that’s the product it offers you. But Facebook also uses your data to sell to advertisers, which makes you the product. No matter how you spin this, the fact that Facebook collects so much data about you is what turns you into a product for those third-parties willing to pay the price for targeted access.
Also, a company can have more than one product. And your data and the time you spend on Facebook is what makes Facebook money. Furthermore, Facebook’s real purpose, as a for-profit publicly traded company is to make money not give you access to digital content or help you make connections. So you’re Facebook’s product, like it or not.
Elsewhere in the post, Facebook says that it’s not selling your data:
So our promise is this: we do not tell advertisers who you are or sell your information to anyone. That has always been true. We think relevant advertising and privacy aren’t in conflict, and we’re committed to doing both well.
Again, that’s a half-truth. No internet company in its right mind would sell the actual data of one of its users. But Facebook does sell your data, anonymized and in pieces.
If a bike shop comes to Facebook wanting to reach female cyclists in Atlanta, we can show their ad to women in Atlanta who liked a Page about bikes. But here’s what’s key: these businesses don’t know who you are.
Of course, they don’t know who you are, or Facebook would be in serious trouble.
Facebook also fails to really answer a different question you might have, “Why does Facebook need all this data?,” by pretending it’s not, first and foremost, needed for ads:
As people use Facebook, they share information and content – whether it’s liking a post, sharing a photo or updating their profile. We use this information to give you a better service. For example, we can show you photos from your closest friends at the top of your News Feed, or show you articles about issues that matter most to you, or suggest groups that you might want to join.
The company also pretends that it’s doing small businesses a favor by letting them access your data:
Data also helps us show you better and more relevant ads. And it lets advertisers reach the right people, including millions of small businesses and non-profits who rely on Facebook every day to reach people that might be interested in their product or cause. Data lets a local coffee shop survive and grow amid larger competitors by showing ads to customers in its area. And it lets a non-profit promote a diabetes fundraiser to those interested in the cause.
It’s understandable why Facebook is providing these explanations. It all has to do with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, the post may explain Facebook’s current practices, but it might not address the kind of data sharing habits that allowed Cambridge Analytica to swipe all that data about Facebook users.