Teenagers Reading

research for my PhD thesis

We believe this benefits you

with 3 comments

I discussed the commercial basis of Web 2.0, particularly Facebook’s targeted advertising, at Reality 2.0 in Brisbane last week. I was sick and could not attend, but Jo from Toowoomba Library kindly read my paper for me. (Thank you Jo!) Facebook’s popularity is growing, but its commercial basis has inherent problems, which must be considered.

Venture capitalist and board member of Facebook, Peter Thiel, previously co-founded PayPal and said of it,

“You can find value not in real manufactured objects, but in the relations between human beings.” [1]

Facebook is the epitome of this thinking; it is the users and their connections which make money for the company. My fav author Tom Hodgkinson (everyone should read How to be Idle) is particularly scathing of the neocon origins of Facebook and believes,

“It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.” [1]

Though really, this could be said of many online ventures, and most of the capitalistic world we live in.

Unlike everyone I know, I’m not on Facebook (I still haven’t caved into my friends’ incessant hassling). I have issues with Facebook’s commercial basis and the implications for younger users who may not have acquired the skills necessary to discriminate between unbiased information and paid advertising content. While Facebook says they will not knowingly allow children under 13 to use the site and teenagers 13-17 should get their parent’s permission [2], what’s the likelihood of that? :)

I dislike Facebook’s monopoly and the enormous amount of personal data they collect. Have you ever read Facebook’s Privacy Policy? It makes for interesting reading and highlights some of the ways this data may be shared with other companies and the seemingly altruistic justification,

“We believe this benefits you.” [2]

This doesn’t mean they do share the data, but why would Facebook include such clauses if they are never going to make use of them?

Tom Hodgkinson examined Facebook’s implementation of Beacon, which initially “bombarded” users with advertising [1]. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described it as,

“a simple product to let people share information across sites with their friends.” [3]

When talking to potential advertisers Facebook are bit less evasive and call it what it is: viral distribution. They then crank up the ad-speak with

“effortless sharing while protecting user privacy.” [4]

Unfortunately they weren’t thinking this way for the first month of Beacon’s life. In November 2007, 46,000 users protested that a notification when one of their friends made a purchase at certain online shops was too intrusive [1]. This groundswell of dissatisfaction caused Facebook to change Beacon from opt-out to opt-in and founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized on the Facebook blog, making Beacon seem all friendly and not about ads at all [3]. Last month a class-action law suit was filed in California against Facebook and their Beacon partners. It’s alleged they violated online privacy and computer fraud laws in the first month of Beacon’s operation (November 2007) because,

“non-Facebook persons who utilized the Facebook Beacon Activated Affiliate Websites were not told that their transaction, and indeed, every transaction they engaged in upon the Website was being communicated to a third party (Facebook) with whom they had no relationship whatsoever.” [5]

Theoretically users may opt-out of all Facebook’s email notifications, but Facebook’s Privacy Policy states,

“We may occasionally use your name and email address to send you notifications regarding new services offered by Facebook that we think you may find valuable…Facebook reserves the right to send you notices about your account even if you opt out of all voluntary email notifications.” [2]

The Policy also states,

“Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (e.g., photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalized experience.” [2]

In 2005 Josh Smith blogged about Facebook’s Privacy Policy and its potential for data-mining. Three years ago the above clause read,

“Thefacebook [the name Facebook started out with] also collects information about you from other sources, such as newspapers and instant messaging services. This information is gathered regardless of your use of the Web Site.” [6]

Later in 2005 Jacob Morse blogged on the same topic [7] and received a response from Facebook’s spokesperson Chris Hughes,

“Firstly, the clause you reference in the privacy agreement is leftover from an outdated version of the privacy policy which is currently being updated. We used to have a couple features on the site that aren’t still there, such as collecting users’ away messages from AIM (if they said they wanted it) and displaying mentions of their names in campus newspapers (again, upon request). That clause will not be included in the upcoming version of the privacy policy which will be released in the next couple of weeks.” [8]

The clause in the current Policy has not changed greatly, which is the case in other parts of the policy. Josh Smith also wrote about the previously worded:

“Facebook may share your information with third parties, including responsible companies with which we have a relationship.” [6]

The current Policy states,

“We may provide information to service providers to help us bring you the services we offer,” [2]

including advertising which they term “sponsored links.” Facebook qualifies this as being

“for use for a limited time in connection with these business activities.” [2]

Limited time is a relative term and Facebook cannot ensure what a third party will do with this information, which may include date of birth, multiple email addresses, telephone numbers, home address, political and religious views(!?). Later in the Policy, when discussing Facebook Applications, it states,

“Facebook does not screen or approve Platform Developers and cannot control how such Platform Developers use any personal information that they may obtain in connection with Platform Applications.” [2]

Unlike the previous clause, users can opt-out of this sharing of their details through the privacy settings.

Then there’s the Terms of Use for uploading photos. When you upload a photo to a Facebook profile, you’re licencing Facebook to do whatever they want to with your photo. The Terms of Use explain this and you have to agree with them to upload your photo. This didn’t bother my friend Caitlin (yes, you can find her on Facebook),

“What are they going to do with the millions of photos, most of them drunk people at parties?”

What indeed? If you delete a photo from your profile, Facebook relinquishes their license, but they keep a copy of the photo on their database, similarly to the previous inability of Facebook profiles to be deleted from the database. This clause has since been changed and users can now request that all their profile information be wiped, if they no longer want to use Facebook.

“Removed information may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time but will not be generally available to members of Facebook.” [2]

So enjoy Facebook, but perhaps don’t put all your details on it for anyone to use as they wish.


  1. Hodgkinson, Tom (2008) With friends like these… The Guardian, 14 January.
  2. Facebook (2007) Facebook’s Privacy Policy, 6 December.
  3. Zuckerberg, Mark (2007) Thoughts on Beacon, Facebook Blog, 5 December.
  4. Facebook (2008) Business solutions: Facebook Beacon.
  5. Gohring, Nancy (2008) Facebook faces class-action suit over Beacon IDG News Service, 13 August.
  6. Smith, Josh (2005) Big Brothers, Big Facebook: Your Orwellian Community, 1 July.
  7. Morse, Jacob (2005) What would Orwell do?, 14 December.
  8. Morse, Jacob (2006) Facebook Responds, 16 January.

Written by ClareSnow

19 September 2008 at 12:45 pm

3 Responses

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  1. This was a very informative post. I’ll certainly be more discerning in my use of Facebook from now on.


    30 September 2008 at 8:01 am

  2. “It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.”

    That’s not really true. Facebook actually creates relationships, especially between “friends of friends”. Chance meetings of like minds at parties used to be transitory, but thanks to facebook they are cemented friendships. That’s a creation if you ask me. It also discounts the idea of friend “collection”: kids don’t collect stamps anymore, they collect friends through fb.


    1 October 2008 at 6:42 am

  3. Don’t forget that the sign-up screen tell you that Facebook can be used to control privacy online…

    And then there’s the clause asking if they can use your name in ads to convince your friends that you are somehow linked with the ad: “Facebook occasionally pairs advertisements with relevant social actions from a user’s friends to create Social Ads. Social Ads make advertisements more interesting and more tailored to you and your friends. These respect all privacy rules. You may opt out of appearing in your friends’ Social Ads below.”

    I recently had a situation where my little brother didn’t realise how much info facebook was pulling from his postings and accidentally exposed some information he’d rather not have had exposed. I explained what had happened to him, but even though I’d selected to not have anything fed through the news feed, my response came up on my friend’s walls as well.


    1 October 2008 at 10:23 am

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