Leaving aside Donald Trump’s paranoid delusions about social media companies’ biases against him, there are increasingly troubling signs of massive control from industry giants. I realized this when I received a chilling document from Facebook after donating to a charity on Paypal via Facebook.
The five-page document, “Facebook Data Policy,” was shocking, even though I know there is no privacy in the Internet Age. Here is some of what I learned. Facebook collects copious, varied information about users, “including created and shared content, and messages or communication with others.” Its systems “automatically process content and communications [users] provide to analyze context and what’s in them.”
This is done for many reasons, none of them worry-free. For example, information is collected about “the people, pages, accounts, hashtags and groups” we connect to and how we interact with them across all Facebook “Products,” like Instagram and What’s App. Facebook knows who we communicate with, when and for how long, what groups we belong to, the content we view, react to, and share, the actions we take. And that’s just for starters.
They collect information about our purchases and financial transactions, what kind of credit or debit card we used, and our contact details. They also “analyze content, communication and information that other people provide [about us] when they use Facebook products.”
Facebook, we are told, “collects information from and about the computers, phones, connected TVs and other web-connected devices you use that integrate with our Products, and we combine this information across different devices you use…to better personalize content, including ads.”
Those are excerpts from page one. Subsequent pages include information about everything from “device attributes and operations” that relate to consumer behavior, “Identifiers” (like “accounts you use”) or access to GPS location, camera and photos. Advertisers, app developers and publishers can send Facebook information about us, and can in turn “provide information about your activities off Facebook, like websites you visit, purchases you make, and ads you see.”
We are warned to consider carefully with whom we share information “because people can see your activity … and can choose to share it with others … including people and businesses outside the audience you share with. … People can share a photo of you in a story, mention or tag you at a location in a post, or share information about you in their posts and messages.” Information is shared “globally and externally” and information “may be transferred or transmitted to, or stored and processed in the U.S. or other countries.” Data is stored until “it is no longer necessary.”
If you haven’t yet read the novel “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, now would be a good time to grab it. Like “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” it is a frighteningly prescient story of a mega-firm like Facebook that seems wonderful until its sinister control of everyone is no longer stoppable.
A guy named Alistair Mactaggart in California took on Silicon Valley after becoming alarmed at what he learned from Information Age tech friends with amazing results, reported in an August New York Times article. While researching the problem of lost privacy, Mactaggart had learned that the U.S., unlike some other countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. Companies can collect and buy information without and limits. What laws did exist, the ones you never read in the fine print, had been crafted by the companies that rely on personal data.
“Advertisers could buy thousands of data points on virtually every adult in America,” Nicholas Confessore wrote in the Times. “With Silicon Valley’s help, they could make increasingly precise guesses about what you wanted, what you feared and what you might do next. … And no one knew more about what people did or were going to do than Facebook and Google.”
Mactaggart realized that Silicon Valley was transforming politics because the political establishment saw that the key to its future rested in companies like Google and Facebook with a vast capacity for surveillance and information collection. He decided to do something about it.
The result of his complex efforts was the passage in June of California Assembly Bill 375, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. It is unprecedented in the U.S. and applies European-level compliance obligations similar to a standard set by a General Data Protection Regulation, according to the website www.FocusontheData.com. The law, which takes effect in January 2020, includes new disclosure requirements, consumer rights, training obligations, and potential penalties for noncompliance, among other things.
The law is complicated and comprehensive. Key provisions include the right to transparency regarding personal information, and businesses must provide a clear link on their homepage to a “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” option. Consumers have a right to ask a business to disclose categories and specific bits of personal information the business has collected and they can opt out at any time. There is no private right to action but the California Attorney General can bring actions for civil penalties up to $7,500 per violation.
It’s a start that could become a much-needed national norm. For someone who does online research, sometimes at kinky sites, and as a vocal political lefty, it can’t come too soon.