You are a soldier in Google’s Cold War with Facebook for social dominance

The underlying dynamic that likely drives Facebook’s and Google’s amendments to their policy and terms frameworks is that we users tend to place more value on recommendations from our friends and family. Facebook and Google’s advertising and promotional models (as well as a number of other services that personalise ads) are increasingly designed to manufacture these recommendations using our activities on the various services without the need for us to actively apply our minds to what we are recommending and what we choose not to. At the moment, the dominant model is one in which we choose to signify our approval of a brand, product or service by Liking or +1’ing it. These changes start to make those actions less important as a recommendation signal and are made possible through contractual models which include privacy policy frameworks and terms and conditions.

Shifting Publicity Policies

Between Facebook and Google, these two companies have voluntold[1] us that we are now part of their sales teams. It started with Facebook’s announcement on 29 August 2013 that it intends amending it’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (I’ll call it the “Statement” below) and the Data Use Policy which included an expanded section describing what personal information it intends using to, essentially, sell products and services using you to make that happen. Before I go into more detail, it’s important to note something about how these policy changes bind you.

Whenever services like Google and Facebook explain changes to policy frameworks and their terms and conditions, they explain that they won’t use your personal information in certain ways unless you give them permission to do so. They don’t but this is really just a ruse. You have already given them permission when you signed up to use the service and your permission takes the form of privacy policies that include your agreement that they can amend the policies and other terms and conditions pretty much at will. If they are going to be truly transparent, they should say something along the lines of –

unless you give us your permission to do so (which you have already, so thanks for that)

The underlying dynamic that likely drives Facebook’s and Google’s amendments to their policy and terms frameworks is that we users tend to place more value on recommendations from our friends and family. Facebook and Google’s advertising and promotional models (as well as a number of other services that personalise ads) are increasingly designed to manufacture these recommendations using our activities on the various services without the need for us to actively apply our minds to what we are recommending and what we choose not to. At the moment, the dominant model is one in which we choose to signify our approval of a brand, product or service by Liking or +1’ing it. These changes start to make those actions less important as a recommendation signal and are made possible through contractual models which include privacy policy frameworks and terms and conditions.

How You Are Selling for Facebook

The current Statement currently includes the following clauses dealing “About Advertisements and Other Commercial Content Served or Enhanced by Facebook” –

Our goal is to deliver ads and commercial content that are valuable to our users and advertisers. In order to help us do that, you agree to the following:

  1. You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture may be associated with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. You give us permission to use your name and profile picture in connection with that content, subject to the limits you place.
  2. We do not give your content or information to advertisers without your consent.
  3. You understand that we may not always identify paid services and communications as such.

Note that you have already given your permission for Facebook to use “your name and profile picture” in connection with ads and sponsored content. The new, proposed version, goes even further and may (it hasn’t been finalised yet) state the following:

Our goal is to deliver advertisings and other commercial or sponsored content that are is valuable to our users and advertisers. In order to help us do that, you agree to the following[2]:

  1. You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture may be associated with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. You give us permission to use your name, and profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or relatedthat content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us, subject to the limits you place[3]. This means, for example, that you permit a business or other entity to pay us to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you. If you have selected a specific audience for your content or information, we will respect your choice when we use it.

If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to the terms of this section (and the use of your name, profile picture, content, and information) on your behalf.[4]

  1. We do not give your content or information to advertisers without your consent.

  2. You understand that we may not always identify paid services and communications as such.

The other changes to the Statement addressed issues such as software installation, dispute resolution and a reminder that using mobile data could incur charges. The proposed changes to the Data Use Policy are pretty extensive and you have to read through the whole document to get a sense of the overall picture. For example, one of the edited clauses states the following:

As described in “How we use the information we receive,” We we also put together data from the information we already have about you,and your friends, and others, so we can offer and suggest a variety of services and features. For example, we may put together data about you to determine make friend suggestions, pick storieswhich for friends we should show you in your News Feed, or suggest people you to tag in the photos you post. We may put together your current city with GPS and other location information we have about you to, for example, tell you and your friends about people or events nearby, or offer deals to you in which that you might be interested in. We may also put together data about you to serve you ads or other content that might be more relevant to you.

Further down the marked up Data Use Policy, under part IV, one of the paragraphs begins with the following:

When we deliver ads, we do not share your information (information that personally identifies you, such as your name or contact information) with advertisers unless you give us permission.

It then goes on to describe how Facebook personalises ads. It is a very interesting read because it describes, in a fair amount of detail, how Facebook uses your personal information to sell relevant ads. It is a powerful model and the proposed changes to allow Facebook to incorporate more of your personal information into what are effectively personal endorsements is likely to be even more lucrative for Facebook.

The comment period for these changes closed on the 7th of September and we will have to wait and see to what extent these proposed changes will be applied. Of course these changes are not isolated. Facebook made a number of additional announcements recently which reinforce this trend.

The first change was fairly innocuous. On 30 September, Facebook published a post titled “Graph Search Now Includes Posts and Status Updates” which is fairly self-explanatory –

Starting today, Graph Search will include posts and status updates. Now you will be able to search for status updates, photo captions, check-ins and comments to find things shared with you.

Search for the topics you’re interested in and see what your friends are saying, like “Dancing with the Stars“ or ”Posts about Dancing with the Stars by my friends.”

The next announcement which attracted more interest was the announcement on 10 October which was styled as a reminder and is titled “Reminder: Finishing the Removal of an Old Search Setting” –

Last year we announced the removal of an old setting called “Who can look up your Timeline by name?” along with new controls for managing content on Facebook.

The search setting was removed last year for people who weren’t using it. For the small percentage of people still using the setting, they will see reminders about it being removed in the coming weeks.

Whether you’ve been using the setting or not, the best way to control what people can find about you on Facebook is to choose who can see the individual things you share.

More publicly shared profile data coupled with all that profile data being indexed by Facebook’s powerful Graph Search means that even more users’ personal information becomes accessible for use in personalised ads with the only limitation being selective sharing by choosing whether to share updates publicly or friends (this can be further delineated using friends lists if you use them). Assuming Facebook’s proposed changes to its Statement and Data Use Policy are implemented (and they likely will be, in some form or another), you can expect even more personalised ads that include what appear to be more personal recommendations from your Facebook connections. It is both very sneaking and, at the same time, very clever and you have agreed to this (whatever this turns out to be) already.

Yes, You Work for Google Too

Google’s approach is far more nuanced than Facebook’s and users do appear to have an option to opt-out of its personalisation model (and it is an opt-out, you are opted-in by default). The changes were announced on 11 October in a document that summarises the changes that Google will implement on 11 November 2013. In contrast to Facebook’s governance model which still allows for some degree of community involvement, Google tends to announce changes and implement them without much public consultation. Google explains its “Shared Endorsements” model as follows:

We want to give you – and your friends and connections – the most useful information. Recommendations from people you know can really help. So your friends, family and others may see your Profile name and photo, and content like the reviews you share or the ads you +1’d. This only happens when you take an action (things like +1’ing, commenting or following) – and the only people who see it are the people you’ve chosen to share that content with. On Google, you’re in control of what you share. This update to our Terms of Service doesn’t change in any way who you’ve shared things with in the past or your ability to control who you want to share things with in the future.

Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising. For example, your friends might see that you rated an album 4 stars on the band’s Google Play page. And the +1 you gave your favorite local bakery could be included in an ad that the bakery runs through Google. We call these recommendations shared endorsements and you can learn more about them here.

When it comes to shared endorsements in ads, you can control the use of your Profile name and photo via the Shared Endorsements setting. If you turn the setting to “off,” your Profile name and photo will not show up on that ad for your favorite bakery or any other ads. This setting only applies to use in ads, and doesn’t change whether your Profile name or photo may be used in other places such as Google Play.

If you previously told Google that you did not want your +1’s to appear in ads, then of course we’ll continue to respect that choice as a part of this updated setting. For users under 18, their actions won’t appear in shared endorsements in ads and certain other contexts.

For greater control over your experience with ads on Google, you can also use Google’s Ads Settings tool to manage ads you see. Learn more.

The main change to Google’s Terms of Service is this insertion under the heading “Your Content in our Services”:

If you have a Google Account, we may display your Profile name, Profile photo, and actions you take on Google or on third-party applications connected to your Google Account (such as +1’s, reviews you write and comments you post) in our Services, including displaying in ads and other commercial contexts. We will respect the choices you make to limit sharing or visibility settings in your Google Account. For example, you can choose your settings so your name and photo do not appear in an ad.

Google users can opt-out of this option and a help page explains the process. An interesting part of the process is the following (I highlighted the interesting bit):

Go to the Shared Endorsements setting page. If you are not already a Google+ user, you will be asked to upgrade your account.

Why is this interesting? Because it is a pretty devious way to persuade more Google services users to “upgrade” their Google accounts to Google+ accounts and integrate deeper into the broader Google platform. Driving Google+ user adoption (in other words, persuading users to activate Google+ integration) is how Google is going to make meaningful inroads into Facebook’s dominance on the social Web. It is Google’s metaphorical arms build up in its battle with Facebook for dominance on the social Web and for a larger stake in the social marketing space.

I imagine that even if you opt-out of the Shared Endorsements program, you will still see personalised ad suggestions. Reducing the likelihood of your personal information being used to personalise ads will probably require browsing the Web anonymously or, at the very least, reviewing your privacy settings very carefully and customising them to suit your preferences.

Caught in the Cross-Fire

When the media covers these sorts of changes, the implication tends to be that personalisation is bad and should be resisted at all costs. That isn’t necessarily the case. If you accept that you will be faced with ads in a service you find truly useful and don’t pay for, being presented with more relevant ads is probably going to enhance your experience of those ads. The real question is whether users have meaningful control over their personal information and can opt-out of personalised ads and still have use of these services. I think that answer will increasingly become “no” as more and more functionality becomes dependent on your participation, willing or not.

Facebook frequently talks about features it is removing and which were only used by a small percentage of users. Most recently one of those features is the option of not being included in Graph Search. The fact that so few users have enabled that option says more about how aware users are of these sorts of “features” and whether they are adequately informed about their value. The answer is overwhelmingly “very few” and “definitely not”. For the most part, users just want to post fun photos and videos and share stuff. They don’t think about how their rights are affected and that only changes when there is significant attention on major changes. To combat this, services like Google and Facebook have adopted the legal equivalent of stealth weapons and make use of nuanced language, misdirection and selective emphasis to deflect attention from the problematic changes.

What we see is a sort of war by proxy between the major social services and in which users could find themselves fuelling various services’ efforts to gain market share without being aware of much more than more personalised ads and begin prodded to “upgrade” their accounts to take advantage of the new flashy options. For so long as users feel they benefit more than they are prejudiced, this deal works for them but the challenge has always been whether users are aware of the extent to which their options are being limited and they are being traded for bigger weapons in this digital battlefield? The answer for the most part is “no” and that is not likely to change any time soon.

  1. It’s a made-up word for what happens when you sort of volunteer and are also told that you are signing up for something, especially when you don’t usually have much choice.  ↩
  2. I have marked up the proposed edits with strikethrough for deletions and bold for insertions.  ↩
  3. Isn’t this an interesting deletion?  ↩
  4. This is a challenging one. If you are under the age of 18 in South African law you may lack the legal capacity to agree to this so the consent Facebook takes may still amount to a violation of children’s rights to privacy.  ↩

What changes to Facebook’s governance structure mean for users

An Overview of the Proposed Changes


Facebook post about proposed changes to Data Use Policy and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities-2Facebook’s changes to its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and its Data Used Policy generally attract a fair amount of attention and consternation. It’s latest changes are no exception and while there is reason for some concern, the proposed changes won’t have the radical impact many fear it will. In a post titled “Proposed Updates To Our Governing Documents”, Facebook’s Vice President for Communications Public Policy and Marketing, Elliott Schrage, introduce the changes as follows:

Today we are proposing some updates to two documents which govern our site: our Data Use Policy, which explains how we collect and use data when people use Facebook, and our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), which explains the terms governing the use of our services. These updates provide more detailed information about our practices, reflect changes to our products, and improve how we conduct our site governance process.

Changes to the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities

The most significant change to the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (this is what Facebook calls its service terms of use) is the proposed removal of a participatory which it introduced in 2009 which notionally gave users the opportunity to vote on proposed changes to Facebook’s governing legal frameworks. This voting mechanism provided that if more than 7000 users –

… post a substantive comment on a particular proposed change, we will also give you the opportunity to participate in a vote in which you will be provided alternatives. The vote shall be binding on us if more than 30% of all active registered users as of the date of the notice vote.

The proposed changes are being put to a vote in terms of this existing voting mechanism and this will be the 3rd, and quite possibly the last, vote under this particular framework. In a sense, it’s not surprising that Facebook has made the decision to remove this mechanism (although it is unfortunate given that Facebook has not made a substantive effort to publicise votes in the past). The 1st vote introduced this voting mechanism and the 2nd vote took place in June 2012. According to Ars Technica, both votes “had a turnout of well under one percent of Facebook’s user base”. Facebook only announced the votes on its blog and on its site governance page so that poor turnout was not unexpected. In addition, it’s probably fair to say that most users don’t take an interest in Facebook’s governance except where there is a flareup in the media.

Granted, Facebook’s threshold for the votes was fairly high when the mechanism was initially introduced and, with roughly 1,000,000,000 users, a 30% vote represents a substantial number of Facebook users taking an interest in the changes being voted on and voting in one or another direction. That said, the mechanism represented a degree of participation in Facebook’s governance which was, and remains, largely unprecedented on the Web. In its place, Facebook proposes a 7 day notice period for substantive changes to its governance frameworks although Facebook will not notify users of changes “for legal or administrative reasons, or to correct an inaccurate statement”. The “legal or administrative reasons” category is somewhat vague and it remains to be seen just what sorts of changes this includes.

Other changes to the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities include a clarification of the prohibition on using your personal timeline for your own commercial gain by qualifying that with an allowance for some commercial gain as long as your use is not “primarily” for your own commercial gain. Facebook requires you to use a Facebook Page for commercial use.

The proposed changes to the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities has prompted a hoax on Facebook where Facebook users are encouraged to publish certain notices including the following one:

In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!

(Anyone reading this can copy this text and paste it on their Facebook Wall. This will place them under protection of copyright laws By the present communiqué, I notify Facebook that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, disseminate, or take any other action against me on the basis of this profile and/or its contents. The aforementioned prohibited actions also apply to employees, students, agents and/or any staff under Facebook’s direction or control. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of my privacy is punished by law (UCC 1 1-308-308 1-103 and the Rome Statute).

Facebook is now an open capital entity. All members are recommended to publish a notice like this, or if you prefer, you may copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once, you will be tacitly allowing the use of elements such as your photos as well as the information contained in your profile status updates

The proposed changes to not affect the licensing provisions in these terms and conditions and this notice which some Facebook users are publishing in the hopes that this will restrict how their content is used on Facebook will not have any impact on the licence which they have already granted to the service and which is recorded in the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities –

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings : you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

Changes to the Data Use Policy

Facebook’s Data Use Policy is a substantial document of 16 pages. It describes what personal information Facebook collect from its users and what it does with their personal information. It is a particularly important document which most users have probably not read and the proposed changes are interesting to say the least. In some respects, the changes clarify the existing wording and, in others, they will expand the range of uses that Facebook already has in respect of users’ personal information. Although the proposed changes don’t specifically refer to Instagram, the proposed changes reference Facebook’s affiliates and include the following addition:

We may share information we receive with businesses that are legally part of the same group of companies that Facebook is part of, or that become part of that group (often these companies are called affiliates). Likewise, our affiliates may share information with us as well. We and our affiliates may use shared information to help provide, understand, and improve our services and their own services.

The implications of this proposed change of that Facebook may make use of personal information which it collects through services like Instagram, which it owns, and make use of that personal information within the Facebook service itself.

Facebook also proposes removing a similar voting mechanism in the Data Used Policy and replacing it with a 7 day comment period and simple notice of changes being made to the Policy.

Generally speaking, the Data Used Policy highlights just how much personal information Facebook collects, how it collects all of that personal information and just how important it is that users take an active interest in the privacy controls which Facebook makes available to them in order to better control how much of their personal and profile information can be shared across the service. These proposed changes have inspired another preformatted status update which users are publishing in the timelines –

To all my FB family and friends: I want to stay PRIVATELY connected with you. However, with the recent changes in FB, the “public” can now see activities in ANY wall. This happens when our friend hits “like” or “comment” ~ automatically, their friends would see our posts too. Unfortunately, we cannot change this setting by ourselves because Facebook has configured it this way.

PLEASE place your mouse over my name above (DO NOT CLICK), a window will appear, now move the mouse on “FRIENDS” (also without clicking), then down to “Settings”, click here and a list will appear. REMOVE the CHECK on “COMMENTS & LIKE” and also “PHOTOS”. By doing this, my activity amongst my friends and family will no longer become public.

Now copy and paste this on your wall. Once I see this posted on your page I will do the same for you.

As with the bogus copyright notice which I mentioned above, this privacy notice has no impact on the permissions a user grants Facebook through the Data Use Policy. It also reveals an ignorance about how many of Facebook’s privacy controls actually work. This particular notice attempts to address one of the truisms about sharing information through Facebook. When you read the Data Use Policy one of the things that stands out is that a user’s ability to control personal information and updates shared on Facebook is hardly absolute. The only way to relatively effectively control which of your updates and personal information other users may see and share is to make judicious use of the privacy and sharing controls in your profile settings. One of the cautions Facebook includes in the Data Used Policy (and this is an addition to the Policy) is the following –

When you hide things on your timeline, like posts or connections, it means those things will not appear on your timeline. But, remember, anyone in the audience of those posts or who can see a connection may still see it elsewhere, like on someone else’s timeline or in search results.

The Policy also points out that information shared with 3rd party applications and services through Facebook is not automatically removed when you start making use of those applications or services and, further, even if you request those applications or services to remove your personal information, they may retain your personal information in order to comply with some or other compliance requirement of their own. The service also shares a considerable amount of your personal information with a variety of parties including other users and your Facebook friends for various reasons which are variations of “improvements” to your experience of the service.

The proposed changes to the Data Use Policy will not radically change the Facebook privacy model. It is fairly permissive and broad already. What it highlights is the cliche that if you are not paying for a service then you are the product. This has, however, almost always been the case with Facebook.