End of the line

By Christian Louden

In an era of people concerned about protecting themselves from identity theft, it’s surprising that many don’t read contracts before agreeing to them. With an average 250,000 new users signing up with Facebook every day, the volume of personal information that is being collected, organized and archived is difficult to imagine.

News Corp. launched a new advertising platform for MySpace on Mon., Nov. 5, dubbed HyperTargeting. The platform allows for advertisers to generate ad content based on the content of profiles, messages to friends, and group membership. Ordinarily, this sort of thing would go unnoticed. After all, Google has been doing similar sorts of advertising since 2003, and they’ve even announced the upcoming launch of an entirely free cell phone made possible by this sort of invasive advertising. Not to be outdone, arch-nemesis Facebook announced a similar advertising scheme the very next day, following an exclusive advertising platform deal made with Microsoft on Oct. 24.

“Under the expanded strategic alliance, Microsoft will be the exclusive third party advertising platform partner for Facebook, and will begin to sell advertising for Facebook internationally in addition to the United States,” said the press release on the Facebook press website. Microsoft paid $240 million for the exclusivity rights, valued at $15 billion.

The new advertising initiative may lead one to reconsider posting all sorts of personal information in profiles, which will become fair game for use in market research and advertising. After all, users licensed all of their personal information and photographs when they agreed to the terms of use.

“By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.”

The most troubling part of these terms is Facebook’s ability to grant sublicenses. This means that Facebook could ostensibly sell sublicenses for users’ photographs, blog, personal information, or any other user posted data to whomever wishes to purchase it. Perhaps even more troubling is that Facebook’s collection of information doesn’t seem to end with user-generated consent.

“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.”

For the Internet-savvy and privacy buffs, this is nothing new. A flash animation hosted on AlbinoBlacksheep.com with details of a conspiracy theory connecting the U.S. government with Facebook was released last year, citing the very same sections of the Facebook privacy policy. Today, statistics released by Facebook indicate the number of active users doubles every six months.

When I attempted to contact Facebook to ask a few questions regarding their privacy policy, they declined to comment. I did manage to speak with Facebook user and University of Calgary communication and culture dean Dr. Kathleen Scherf.

“It’s not surprising when information is the hottest commodity you can sell,” she said. “That is the captive information that they hold, so of course they’re going to use it for revenue generation, because that is what the market is all about. We don’t have to like it, but that’s what marketing information is all about.”

For Scherf, the most surprising part was the rights Facebook claims over personal information posted by its users, when most people don’t bother to read the fine print.

“When you put yourself out there as identifiable, they’re going to market to you,” she said. “But it’s that shit that you don’t know that’s really the moral lynch pin, like that they can use your image that’s shocking.”

Is the practice of targeting advertisements based on user information all that bad? Is the alternative not to force feed consumers advertisements for things they don’t want or need? The way Facebook explains it in their privacy policy, the advertisements are there to benefit its users.

“Facebook may use information in your profile without identifying you as an individual to third parties. We do this for purposes such as aggregating how many people in a network like a band or movie and personalizing advertisements and promotions so that we can provide you Facebook. We believe this benefits you. You can know more about the world around you and, where there are advertisements, they’re more likely to be interesting to you. For example, if you put a favourite movie in your profile, we might serve you an advertisement highlighting a screening of a similar one in your town. But we don’t tell the movie company who you are.”

But even if Facebook isn’t tabulating and selling your information off for market research, how can one be certain that someone else isn’t? Facebook offers a service called Facebook Platform Applications, which allows third parties to develop applications users can put into their profiles, ranging from games, to horoscopes, and mood indicators. While Facebook makes some effort to protect its users from the misuse of the information collected by these third parties, the wording of the Developer User Agreement is worrisome.

“Without limiting your other obligations under this Agreement, with respect to your usage of Facebook Platform and any installation and use by any Facebook Users of your Facebook Platform Applications, you agree to implement and observe standards of privacy and confidentiality for the collection, use and sharing of any data related to any Facebook User that are at least as stringent and user-favorable as the standards set forth in the Facebook Privacy Policy;”

But recall that the Facebook Privacy Policy condones gathering and compiling information about its users from sources outside of Facebook. If these are the stringent and user-favourable standards they speak of, then this is quite disconcerting. Even with these considerations, Dr. Chloe Atkins, professor and program coordinator of Law and Society at U of C says Facebook has the legal high ground on the issue.

“In the virtual world, there is no consistency or even political will yet to try and create a policy or even a policing of what people do with private information,” said Atkins. “In that sense, it’s kind of like the Wild West–there’s nothing you can do. It’s going have to be people like you and I who use these services who are going to have to object and therefore withdraw, then it’ll be either with money–in the sense that we no longer support certain websites, and we withdraw from them–or that we protest so much that they change their policies.” Atkins said the reason it becomes such a problem is because people neglect to read the fine print just so that they may expedient registration processes.

“It’s unethical at some level, it’s not illegal,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s going to be very much traction for anyone to do anything about it.”

Atkins also believes it’s also a matter of convenience.

“People are willing to say ‘you can use my information, because it’s convenient,’ like we’re willing to put up with very high rates of accidents and deaths with automobiles because they’re so bloody convenient, whereas people have all these tremendous fears around airplanes, when they have much lower rates of accidents,” she explained.

But to what extent will Facebook users accept convenience as a rationalization for possible misappropriation of personal information? Whether it comes from Facebook or third party developers, there still remains a very real danger that user data will be misused.

“I’m actually considering not being on Facebook anymore,” said Scherf. “I’m an optimist, but I’m not naïve. People are going to use that kind of info for their ends, which are not always going to be ends that I support or endorse.”

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