Facebook Expertly Increases Its Data Stash

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About a year ago, Facebook made a big news splash by dropping $19bn to purchase WhatsApp. To make the deal palatable to WhatsApp’s user base and the US government, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and WhatsApp founder Jan Koum went into PR overdrive to reassure everyone that WhatsApp would remain an untouched, standalone app with true privacy.

WhatsApp’s users worried about the potential for privacy invasions, a skill that Facebook has mastered online. After all, who else can lay claim to tracking you on half of the most popular sites in America? Koum, sensing a user base revolt, made a personal, heartfelt statement:

“If partnering with Facebook meant that we had to change our values, we wouldn’t have done it. Instead, we are forming a partnership that would allow us to continue operating independently and autonomously. Our fundamental values and beliefs will not change. Our principles will not change.”

Independent. Autonomous. Values. It all seemed too good to be true, and in the end it was. On the Friday before Super Bowl 2015, while America was obsessing over a gridiron game, Facebook quietly released an update to its privacy policies. Was this timing a cunning move using distraction as the background? Perhaps.

The update is part of the new ‘plain English’ privacy strategy that Facebook announced in November. The goal of the strategy is to eliminate legalese. Before you congratulate Facebook for its shift in policy, however, you should consider the meaning behind those ‘plain’ words. The update states:

“We receive information about you and your activities on and off Facebook from third-party partners, such as information from a partner when we jointly offer services or from an advertiser about your experiences or interactions with them.”

Receiving information from partners when they jointly offer services? The pronouns may be missing from that statement, but the meaning is not. Information from WhatsApp (and Facebook’s Instagram) is fair game after all. All the reassurances made by Zuckerberg and Koum amount to nothing. 

Facebook's $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp could have a major impact on how user data is shared
Facebook's $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp could have a major impact on how user data is shared

Based on Facebook’s history, none of this should be a surprise. But this episode is more insulting based on the promises made. It’s also disappointing from Koum, who used his inspiring story of escaping Soviet oppression as an assurance of WhatsApp’s appreciation for privacy. Back then he wrote how “respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA.” Apparently becoming a billionaire does strange things to one’s moral compass.

This update will likely have ramifications. First of all, Facebook’s actions may violate, amongst other things, a written warning by the director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection released last year. That warning clearly outlined that WhatsApp must continue to honor its promises to consumers about the data it shares with third parties. Here is a paragraph from that warning: 

“WhatsApp's privacy policy clearly states, among other things, that users' information will not be used for advertising purposes or sold to a third party for commercial or marketing use without the users' consent. Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp would not nullify these promises and WhatsApp and Facebook would continue to be bound by them.”

A second concern is whether Facebook’s violation of WhatsApp’s privacy policies makes WhatsApp guilty by default. Europe is wondering the same thing. In Germany, Hamburg’s privacy watchdog is investigating whether the new language violates German law. The Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) in the Netherlands is following suit

"Egregious billionaire egos and blatant disregard of common decency are providing a major opportunity for new companies run ethically and with respect for privacy"

Ironically, this is where Facebook’s ‘plain English’ policy may actually benefit the company. As a British paper accurately pointed out, legalese is cryptic to most of us, but it is meant to eliminate ambiguity, at least to people who can understand it. Simple English is much more open to interpretation. 

Our rights as citizens can’t be ignored any longer. Businesses cannot have free rein over us. Privacy violations must be called out and the guilty parties held accountable. And that means more than a few million dollars in fines. To a billionaire, that’s chump change they can write off as a business expense or ‘investment’.

In a curious sense, I love what Facebook et al are doing. Their egregious billionaire egos and blatant disregard of common decency are providing a major opportunity for new companies run ethically and with respect for privacy.

Another positive is that visionary technology leaders, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, and investors like Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban, are joining the right side of the conversation, calling out the fallacy of Facebook and Google’s data-mining business models, bringing privacy to the forefront of debate. 

The smoking gun that Facebook, WhatsApp, and their cronies have left here will haunt them in the end. We’ve got irreconcilable differences and people are taking action. The #Not4Sale revolution is growing. Statistics support its momentum, people’s words and actions express it daily, and business leaders recognize it as the coming wave. This is the real beauty of our democracy: the freedom to act against those who threaten our rights by showing them the proverbial door. 

About the Author

Mark Weinstein is one of the USA's leading social media and privacy experts and CEO of MeWe.com. Mark is a founder of social networking, a leading privacy advocate, and author of the award-winning Habitually Great book series. He writes a technology column for The Huffington Post, and has been featured on CNN and Fox News

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