Facebook vs. Google vs. You: How your privacy became the ball everyone’s fighting over

It’s common knowledge that Facebook (or “Meta” if you prefer) likes to track you around the internet, seeing where you go, what you look at, and then use that information to help target advertising.

It’s actually a pretty useful system if you’re an advertiser; you can target very specific groups of people and advertise to them for comparatively small amounts of money. Arguably it has powered the growth of many small businesses, and definitely some large ones, especially in the past two years where lockdown has transformed the way we do business and sell online.

I’ve used Facebook advertising many times for clients (in my past life in digital marketing) and for myself (in my current double life as an author). There’s no question that, done properly, it works.

The key is the accuracy and granularity of the targeting. Did you know it’s possible to target men in the UK, between 25 and 45, who like Doctor Who and reading? I do, because that’s almost exactly how I target my advertising when I have a new book to promote. If it’s a book aimed at younger readers, I sometimes switch gender and target the mums, mixing together some Doctor Who with Harry Potter and suitably parental type interests. It’s staggeringly easy, but it only works because we’ve been willingly (even if unwittingly) giving Facebook this kind of high-value data for years.

An important component in Facebook advertising is re-marketing; targetting people who have been to your website with more advertising for your website when they return to Facebook. All it takes is the addition of a small chunk of code to your website and you are instantly able to start targeting your audience. You’ve also just turned your website into a listening post in Facebook’s vast, global intelligence gathering network.

This was all shady enough when it was happening on our computers, but Facebook took it to another level when they adopted a “mobile first” strategy back in 2012. Some pundits thought that Facebook was late to this party but, even if they were, they certainly understood the party a lot better than others when they arrived at it. Location data added a whole new and unprecedented facet to Facebook’s advertising might; combined with the information of who our family and friends were, Facebook could now calculate what we might be interested in before we even knew it ourselves.

How does Facebook know things I didn’t tell Facebook?

Facebook isn’t listening to your conversations. It’s been tested and proven that they aren’t. The truth is actually a whole lot scarier…

Here’s a rough sketch of how it works…

Facebook knows who you are and knows what you’ve been looking at on the internet lately. Let’s say it’s a new car. Facebook knows who you are spending time with because they know where you are, where other people are, and which of those people are your friends. If you’re considering a big purchase, like a car, chances are good that you are discussing this purchase with your friends. So, maybe Facebook would be on to a good thing if it showed adverts for that car you like the look of to your friends, right?

Facebook might even know if you make that purchase, as they love to gobble up data about our purchases from our credit card providers and they know, of course, if you’ve made a purchase through Facebook Marketplace, a Facebook Ad, or Instagram.

(And, because of the way the offline data is acquired, they even know things about you if you’ve never even had a Facebook account…)

According to a recent article by Vox, Facebook and other big-data based companies are even working on algorithms that can predict the end of your relationship. (And, if that doesn’t creep you out, read The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick, which includes the nightmare-inducing claim that Mark Zuckerberg created an algorithm in college to predict which of his friends would “hook up”. It was 33% accurate. That’s the guy calling the shots at Meta and Facebook)

Enter Apple and a Game Changing Privacy Wall

Facebook’s insatiable lust for data and the powerful tools it builds and puts into the hands of just about anyone with a credit card have had serious negative impacts on society; elections have been influenced, the course of referendums changed, and today dangerous disinformation still runs rampant across the platform. The people behind these things have all taken advantage of Facebook’s unprecedented influence machine.

Finally, regulators and legislators are taking note. More importantly than that, consumers are taking note as well, as people are starting to question just what happens to their data and how social media platforms work behind the scenes.

Apple has been the first of the big-tech companies to identify the inherent opportunity here. In the potentially unique position of not being reliant on huge amounts of data about its user to turn a profit, Apple was able to make a strong play out of protecting its users’ privacy by blocking the kind of tracking facilities that Facebook relies on for monitoring its users on the iPhone. For once, Apple’s vice-like hold on the software running on its phones proved to be a huge boon for consumers as it wiped out Facebooks tracking capability in a single software patch. This one simple move hit Facebook’s profit margin by over $10 billion whilst also positioning Apple as the consumer’s champion on privacy and security.

Your move, Google

Apple sells 1 in 3 smartphones worldwide, so Facebook doesn’t need to worry… right? After all, there are still all those lovely Android users out there and, thanks to the fragmentation in the Android mobile phone market there are plenty of phones in use today that aren’t running the latest version of Android and won’t be getting an update any time soon.

Well, maybe not. Google recently announced wide-ranging privacy changes of their own, including bringing an end to third-party tracking and data sharing in apps. It’s a super-fine line for Google to tread as they, like Facebook, rely on advertising as a major source of revenue and use copious amounts of user data to improve targeting and advertising effectiveness. In their blog post, Google (Alphabet) went to some pains to stress that they were not taking the “blunt approach” of others (e.g. Apple) and were committed to helping advertisers transition to new, privacy focussed technologies.

Google themselves are having real problems weaning their systems off intrusive user tracking. The most recent attempt, Federated Learning Of Cohorts (or FLoC) was roundly panned and quickly killed off. Its replacement, “Topics”, isn’t really much better – it still takes your browsing history and infers your interests from it and whilst the topic groups are allegedly broad, that doesn’t really answer the question of why Google should be looking at your browsing history at all. It’s a question being asked in the American Congress, in the EU, by a growing movement of activists, experts, and consumers, and by the UK government, all of whom have expressed an aim to see an end to all behaviourally targetted advertising.

Enter… Nick Clegg?

Yes, sliding in from stage left to take a leading role as one of Facebook’s “Big Three” (alongside Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg) is Sir Nick Clegg, former deputy Prime Minister of the UK and the man so famous for his lack of integrity that there is a Wikipedia page explaining his role in triggering student riots in the UK after going back on a manifesto pledge not to introduce student tuition fees.

Deployed by Facebook to lobby governments worldwide, he’s already in the spotlight as Facebook seeks to challenge Google over its right to implement privacy controls in the Android operating system. Incredibly, I find myself realizing that Facebook has a point – Google blocking other forms of tracking but allowing their own (Topics – which others can then plug into via an API and presumably for a fee) does have all the hallmarks of a classic piece of anti-competitive market monopolization. As odious as Facebook’s tracking of users is, surely it needs to be an “all or nothing” situation; how can it be right for one company to track you, but not another?

It’s going to be a fascinating time in the digital advertising space and I can’t decide if I’m very, very glad not to be in it right now (and having to explain to clients why their campaigns aren’t working how they used to) or whether I’m going to feel like I’m missing out not being in the thick of this fight.

Ultimately, the late 2020s may be the time when personalized, behavioral advertising finally dies. Who knows, we might just have to get creative with our advertising campaigns again to compensate….

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