Both Things Are True: Press Freakouts Over Facebook's Practices Have Been Misleading & Facebook Has A Privacy Problem

from the facebook-derangement-syndrome dept

And so we’re back with Facebook Derangement Syndrome. As we’ve noted a few times in the past, many of the freakouts about Facebook’s privacy practices involve completely misunderstanding or exaggerating the nature of what Facebook did — and presenting things not just in the worst possible light, but in an actively misleading way. This is especially true in the context of privacy questions, where many people seem to interpret Facebook’s good decisions not to lock down YOUR OWN access to your own data as a bad thing and then pressure the company to lock up access to your own data, limiting what you can do with it.

Of course, there is some amount of inherent conflict between open systems and privacy. Indeed, going back eleven years, we had a post highlighting the potential privacy conflicts of Facebook’s “open social graph.” And, of course, at the time, Facebook was celebrated for being so open and not locking up everyone’s data, but enabling it to be used more widely in other systems.

And that brings us to this week’s big NY Times story on Facebook. As we already discussed, what it really highlighted is what a terrible job Facebook does in being open and transparent about how it uses data. But we were also left with some questions about some of the claims in the NYT report, especially regarding the claims that other companies had access to messages.

As more people have looked at it, it increasingly appears that the NY Times reporting on this was really, really bad and contributed to the hysteria, rather than improving understanding. The companies that had access to Facebook messages involved software integrations where those third party apps allowed you to directly access Facebook Messenger from those apps — in the same way that if you want to use Facebook Messenger on your mobile phone, you have to give that phone access to your messages so that… you can use FB Messenger.

As Mathew Ingram notes in an article about this, early on, many people rightfully celebrated Facebook’s open approach, which involved the opposite of locking down data, but purposefully exposing it to make the rest of the internet more useful. It was the kind of openness and open integration most people used to celebrate. It was the opposite of building a locked box silo of your data.

Will Oremus, over at Slate, further notes that the integrations Facebook is now being slammed for in the Times were ones that people were happy about in the past, though, perhaps naively.

The companies? Facebook integrations simply allowed existing customers to log into their Facebook accounts from within the streaming app and use its messaging features without having to navigate to Facebook proper. It?s the sort of arrangement that looks foolhardy or even sinister today but that many internet users took for granted at the time.

I know that because I was one of them. I thought nothing of using Facebook to log into Spotify, because I na?vely trusted Facebook to guard my data, probably more so than I trusted Spotify. I even tested for a while a Mozilla Firefox feature that brought a Facebook feed directly into your browser, as a sidebar, so that you could see what your friends were up to even when you were on other websites. It eventually dawned on me that this was imprudent, and certainly there were some activists at the time who were sounding alarms, but it was hardly a scandal.

None of that is to say that Facebook doesn’t have serious problems. As I wrote when the NY Times piece first came out, the company seems to trip over itself to be sneaky and combative in explaining all of this, and it has always done a terrible job of transparently explaining how the data is and can be used.

But we should be focusing on the real issues regarding our privacy online, rather than cooking up bogus issues to argue about. When we focus on the wrong things, inevitably, whatever “solution” is proposed will make things much, much worse.

And, again, there are real issues here. Facebook letting Amazon look at who you know to determine whether or not reviews are allowed… that’s a problem. No one was told about that. And that wasn’t just about creating integrations to help users do something. That was a questionable sharing of information with a corporate partner, without user permission.

So, we should be able to admit that Facebook has a real privacy problem (and perhaps an even bigger transparency/honesty problem), without immediately jumping on every conspiracy theory about Facebook, when many are not actually accurate.

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Comments on “Both Things Are True: Press Freakouts Over Facebook's Practices Have Been Misleading & Facebook Has A Privacy Problem”

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26 Comments
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

I don’t have the actual date on hand, but it was more than 6 years ago that someone brought up Facebook’s nascent privacy issues to Mark Zuckerberg. He sneered at the concept and said that “privacy means whatever I say it means” (paraphrased) and that real users don’t actually care about privacy.

That was the day I stopped using Facebook for any purpose where a real alternative exists.

I am not Spock or Kirk, I am The Real McCoy says:

Surveillance Capitalism (including esp GOOGLE) is THE PROBLEM.

As I’ve said for… way too long here, I gotta get you monkeys off my back… soon as The Public learns what corporations are actually doing in monetizing privacy, there’ll be a revolt.

As to "the press" misleading: that’s what anyone reasonable has known for decades now. Your little bit of misleading downplay / diversion is futile.

I am not Spock or Kirk, I am The Real McCoy says:

Re: Surveillance Capitalism (including esp GOOGLE) is THE PROBLE

Oh, and of course, as already forgotten here, Facebook is one of the corporations along with GOOGLE that Snowden exposed as giving NSA "direct access".

How can any of you who claim to be knowledgeable simply IGNORE the sweeping invasions of surveillance capitalism? — And ignore too that Masnick is FOR it, always defends the corporations which are violating your privacy / embedded in the security states? It’s a dazzling display of what can only be termed "double-think".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:Toll is THE PROBLE

Perhaps still worse, this guy and his repeated rants is getting other people’s posts stuck in moderation queues. I had just posted a negative comment criticising the seemingly preferential treatment given to the world’s 2nd biggest online company (and made a prediction that came true within minutes) and it got snared by the moderation trap (no links were posted). It’s interesting that Techdirt’s word filters don’t include the usual words you can’t say on TV, but seem to be geared toward filtering out the kind of comments by the usual suspect that routinely get flagged here. (I think i know exactly what it is but I won’t repost a ‘scrubbed’ version.) But that’s fine if it gets lost in the queue, I probably would have re edited that hasty post if i had the chance.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In addition, allowing said partner to clandestinely read, write and delete messages is beyond outrageous. What possible reason might one have for such an egregious offense.

Did you even read the post? It explains that that specific point was a misleading exaggeration, and the "reason" for that was not just entirely reasonable, but one that people embraced.

Killercool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

companies that had access to Facebook messages involved software integrations where those third party apps allowed you to directly access Facebook Messenger from those apps — in the same way that if you want to use Facebook Messenger on your mobile phone, you have to give that phone access to your messages so that… you can use FB Messenger.

You are technically correct, though. It doesn’t say the words "read," "write," or "delete."

Killercool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…The sharing of information (“clandestine reading”) was, indeed, an egregious offense, but I have not seen in any report that Amazon was allowed to write or delete any Facebook messages. I saw a report about them deleting an Amazon review based on their datamining, but that’s not Facebook’s fault. Not directly, anyways.

Please, it’s bad enough with making stuff up. It doesn’t matter how valid your complaint is: if you lie to make it sound worse, it makes everyone take your original problem less seriously.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I lied about what? Did not mention Amazon either.

Is the NYT retracting their story? Is the following quote from the NYT incorrect, wrong or is it a lie?

FB says it had permission for said “access”, I wonder what the users have to say about it. And hiding things in the EULA is not a good excuse.

“Facebook also allowed Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada to read, write and delete users’ private messages, and to see all participants on a thread — privileges that appeared to go beyond what the companies needed to integrate Facebook into their systems, the records show”

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/18/technology/facebook-privacy.html

“Still, while Facebook executives have responded to the report by claiming that all access to user data was given with explicit permission from the users, the report does raise concerns that Facebook was not entirely transparent about how far those permissions went.”

“The problem is with the word “access.” The New York Times report suggests that Facebook’s partner companies had access to users’ personal data, while in many cases what was made available was a way for users of those partners’ apps to interact with Facebook through the app.”

https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2018/12/facebook-partner-arrangements-are-they-as-bad-as-they-look/

Anonymous Coward says:

Why does Masnick defend Zuckerberg so slavishly?

We could also say that "Press Freakouts Over Trump (and a Hundred Other Things) Have Been Misleading" but such press freakouts have never been an issue here. But criticise Facebook or Zuckerberg here and Mike always runs out to defend them. I’ve never understood why someone who is so critical about so many things, and doesn’t seem to care whenever people here in the comments over-criticise other bad actors in the world, yet always jumps to try to rescue Facebook/Zuckerbeg from Techdirt’s online flogging party. No other company or person ever seems to get that kind of special treatment from Masnick. I agree with Mike the vast majority of the time, but feel that his ongoing role as an apologist for Zuckerberg (going back many years) is seriously out of character. Something just doesn’t smell right.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am disgusted with Facebook’s practice of manufacturing consent to get information out of people they wouldn’t normally disclose.

Yeah, the NYTimes focused on app integration which was wrong. Focusing on deceptive locational tracking is right. Focusing on tracking what people type but don’t submit is right.

I have boundless contempt for tech CEOs who treat consent as something to circumvent rather than something to never violate.

I hope the tech industry is torn apart by the media, regulators, and Congress until it learns what the meaning of “informed consent” is. Because they’ve shown themselves utterly incapable of understanding without outside help.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

good luck with that. Congress is ckueless about everything in general, never mind tech or informed consent. they may give internet companies grief, but it is highly unlikely it will improve anything for the public, and likely make things worse. i see nothing good about handing one evil thing to another equally or more evil thing as a chew toy for its own self-gratification.

would be nice if everyone got their ethical shit together, though. no argument there.

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