Know Your Facebook

Updated: Nov 27, 2012, 12:06 PM IST

Shobhika Puri

Two significant events related to Facebook have occurred recently. First, the arrest of two Mumbai girls for their Facebook comments about Bal Thackeray. The second, related to an announcement by Facebook itself about the change in its Data Use Policy. Even though the second event is a big one and affects all users of Facebook directly, sadly, the event has not made big news. Ironically, Facebook, the foundation of which is communication, has not made the efforts to communicate this piece of news well. Or, maybe, it did not intend to do so.

On 22 November 2012, millions of Facebook users got an email from Facebook informing them that their Data Use Policy and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities had been updated. What made it even more strange was that Facebook has given its users just a week to comment on the updates, post which the policy changes would get considered as having being accepted by its users .

The moot question however is, how many users actually read such policies at the time of registering with Facebook, or any other such online service provider? Given the abysmally low levels of readership for such policies at the time of registration, expecting high levels of interest or involvement at the time of updates is asking for too much. Nevertheless, this article attempts to bring to notice to some of the Facebook users, at least the highlights of the social networking site’s Data Use Policy.

The fundamental question is: What type of data does Facebook collect? The most likely answer of many would be the data like name, user id, email address, and location that users share with Facebook. As correct as this is, it is not complete. Facebook not only gets information about a person from the person himself, but also from his friends, who knowingly or unknowingly, share a lot about the person through activities like photo tagging, commenting on status updates, recommending or adding the person to a group, etc. What may be news for many is that, this is not where it ends. Facebook gathers information even from other sources like the computer or mobile device that is used to access Facebook; through a game or application or website that uses Facebook platform; everything that a user does on Facebook like sending or receiving messages, searching for a friend, making online purchases, clicking on advertisements, etc. In short, anything and everything that a person does using Facebook directly or indirectly, is tracked, stored, and used by Facebook for purposes mentioned in its Data Use Policy. Ironically, the data collected is used with the consent of its users, who give it permission usually, unknowingly.

The next logical question is: What does Facebook do with the data it collects from its users? Facebook claims and rightly so, that it needs information about its users to provide them improved products and services continuously, over a period of time. The friend suggestions, the applications, the news feeds, etc are all customized based on the basic information about a user. So far, so good. However, the main usage of the data collected is related to Facebook’s bread and butter - advertisements. To be able to provide the right ads at the right time and location, Facebook needs information about its users’ likes and dislikes, preferences, tastes, location, etc. And, this is what it very judiciously collects and analyzes.

Needless to say, for Facebook to be able to manage such mammoth tasks and data, it needs and has partnered with external parties like advertisers, website hosting service providers, payment processors, data analysts, etc. And, for these external parties to be able to provide their services, they need access to data that Facebook collects about its users, which the latter shares with them. However alarming as this may sound, it is as much a legitimate activity as it is a practical one. Facebook or for that matter, any organisation cannot be expected to do all the activities on its own. Outsourcing and partnerships are legitimate corporate practices. What needs to be taken care of is that the user data that is shared with these external parties is not misused. Facebook has strong legal contracts with such parties to protect the privacy and rights of its users. However, it is for the users to know that their ‘private’ data may not necessarily remain private.

So, what can one do as a user? For starters, be aware and beware! Although it may not be feasible to read all the policies that a social media platform may have, one can always select the ones that can have a direct and major effect. For example, what information one makes ‘public’, what type of photos one gets ‘tagged’ in, what type of groups one joins, what type of applications one uses, who can view or comment on one’s status updates, etc are all under one’s control. All it requires is a few clicks on the company’s Privacy or Data Use or similar policies and settings, and a skimming through of points that matter. Such policies can many times be an eye-opener for even the smartest user, who may have either not thought of a certain point, or may have an incorrect notion about it.

So, the next time one gets an email alert from Facebook or any other service provider, one should take a minute to ascertain its importance and impact, and spare a few minutes to study it. Facebook’s Data Use Policy that directly impacts every person who is on Facebook, is a befitting example of what deserves attention, NOW! It is said that knowledge is being aware that fire can burn and wisdom is remembering the blister. If with a little bit of research, one can gain wisdom without getting burnt, would it not be better? Surely, it would be, as knowledge is the most formidable weapon one can possibly have.

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer)