Facebook Sells to Who?

As I sat down to research who, if anyone, Facebook sells information to, I expected to find that they sell it to anyone and everyone willing to pay for the idea that I “Like” South Carolina athletics.

The first article that I found was written in May, 2010, the month that Facebook introduced its new privacy settings, which were developed because users engaged in a public outcry on how difficult the previous settings were to use.

The author of the Businessweek article asked a Facebook spokesman whether or not the social media giant would be interested in selling the information that its users so freely gave. The spokesman’s response? “People share so freely on Facebook, in part, because they trust that we’re not going to sell their information. We don’t have any interest in violating that trust.”

Wow. Just wow. Who knew that Facebook valued the trust that its users had in it? I was skeptical about this, because it’s Facebook and there are literally billions of things on its server that businesses could use for their benefit. I travelled on over to the Facebook privacy page, where Facebook adamantly denies that they have and will never sell your information.

The one caveat to this is that whatever information you put on your profile as “public” can then be seen by anyone, regardless of friend status or even if they have a Facebook page. There are several bits of information that Facebook deems “public information” regardless of your privacy settings. That information includes your name, profile photo, network and user name. Anyone or any company can see this information.

I know what you all are thinking. ‘Well, if they don’t sell my information, then how come the ads on the right side of my page changed to wedding photographers when I changed my relationship status?’ Facebook has found a way to provide information to outside sources without selling information directly to them. According to the ad interaction/targeting policy, ads are anonymously targeted at segments of the population who fit certain criteria. Say a wedding photographer wants to target “female” who are between the ages of “18-30” who live in the “Southeast” who recently became “engaged.” Well, the Facebook system then randomly finds any and all persons who fit those specific criteria. It’s the same reason that once you go from being “engaged” to “married” the ads change from wedding photographers to baby clothes. Basically, while your personal data is not being sold, your demographics are, but without any identifying information attached to them. According to Facebook, I will never see an ad that says “Jen, are you planning on starting a family soon?” rather just “are you planning on starting a family soon?”

Some more of you might be thinking ‘If they don’t sell ads, then how did I see my friend’s photo used for an online wedding website service?’ Facebook answered that rather easily as well. According to its privacy policy, Facebook will use a friends image if they have a direct connection with the service the ad is for. It is a way for that service to be like “Hey! You’re friend uses us, why don’t you?” Your face isn’t being seen by millions of people in various parts of the world. Facebook also points out that privacy settings do not control the behaviors of apps, but Facebook will make sure that any apps that are seen violating the privacy settings will be dealt with. Case in point

All of this might seem a little too good to be true. That’s because it is. While Facebook claims that it will never sell private information to advertisers, it can and will sell the service of demographics and data mining for any information that has been added to the website voluntarily by the user who decided to not make it private. Did you like a page about the Georgia Bulldogs and your privacy settings are listed as “public?” Well, that information might have been given to a collegiate apparel company who wanted information on “Georgia Bulldog fans.” Some of the same privacy policies apply though; such as no identifying information will be given to companies.

I’ll be the first to admit that I think the ever-changing ads on my Facebook page are a little creepy. After really looking into the Facebook privacy laws, I feel a little more relaxed about the whole thing. The company seems pretty set on not selling its wealth of information. At least for now.

One Comment on “Facebook Sells to Who?”

  1. bhe28 says:

    I can’t help but think at some point they could decide to sell ALL of the information. However, advertising set to demographics makes complete sense seeing as the ads, be they political or sports related, are always accurate on pushing ads from my traffic. I must admit though, it seems as if Facebook is getting away with holding off DIRECTLY identifying individuals, but is still able somehow collect and distribute accordingly. Great post!

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