Facebook’s new Terms of Service: Choosing between your privacy and your relationships
Facebook has changed its privacy settings this January. For Europeans, the changes have come into effect on January 30, 2015.
Apart from collecting data from your contacts, the information you provide, and from everything you see and do in Facebook, the new data policy enables the Facebook app to use your GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi signals to track your location at all times. Facebook may also collect information about payments you make (including billing, shipping, and contact details). Finally, the social media giant collects data from third-party partners, other Facebook companies (like Instagram and Whatsapp), and from websites and apps that use their services (websites that offer “Like” buttons and use Facebook Log In).
The result? Facebook will now know where you live, work, and travel, what and where you shop, whom you are with, and roughly what your purchasing power is. It will have more information than anyone in your life about your habits, likes and dislikes, political inclinations, concerns, and, depending on the kind of use you make of the Internet, it might come to know about such sensitive issues as medical conditions and sexual preferences.
A closer look, however, might reveal the matter in a different light. The first element that might make one suspicious of the benevolent interpretation is the motive behind Facebook’s change of policy. The ultimate goal is, unsurprisingly, to earn more money. Facebook wants to sell more advertising at higher rates. To do that, it will exploit every bit of data to enable advertising to be more and more targeted, as targeted advertising is believed to be more effective. Perhaps this strategy is justifiable. One might think that only the naïve believe that there can be such a thing as a free service on the Internet; one way to look at Facebook is to think that it is a platform that allows users to sell their private information in exchange for the social benefits of belonging to the networking website. It is noncontroversial that a business needs revenue to survive, and Facebook is a business, not a public service. Given how well Facebook was doing as a business before this policy change took effect, however, one might question whether there might be a limit as to how much a company can justify by appealing to financial gain. Facebook’s policy change is not merely allowing the company to survive and flourish, but rather it will foreseeably make it earn an inordinate amount of money. Furthermore, while Facebook stands to win something that is arguably not morally significant (more money than is needed for it so be a highly successful company), users stand to lose something that is morally significant: their privacy. It can be objected that users also profit from something (i.e., publicity that is tailored to them), but I doubt many people are willing to count targeted advertisement as a valuable gain.
Many will not be convinced by this argument. One might think that businesses exist to make as much money as they possibly can, and as long as users consent to the terms of service, there is no wrongdoing on the part of companies. It is unclear, however, what kind of consent is needed from users.
If you are a Facebook user, you will have received in 2014 a notification that read: “By using our services after Jan 1, you agree to our updated terms, data policy and cookies policy and to seeing improved ads based on apps and sites you use.” The kind of consent Facebook is obtaining from users is, at best, implicit, rather than the explicit consent in the form of an “I Agree” button that is required by European law. Legal issues apart, it can also be argued, morally, that the consent acquired is invalid in virtue of the coerciveness of the change of policy.
According to Alan Wertheimer (1987), a proposal is coercive if it is made in the form of a threat that would make the recipient worse off than she ought to be (i.e., “If you do not do what I want you to do, I will make you worse off than you ought to be”), and if the “choice” forced upon the person coerced is such that she in fact has no reasonable choice but to accept the proposal. At least for people who are already Facebook users, the new change of policy can easily be interpreted as a threat that would make people worse off than they should be: If you do not accept the new policies, you will be locked out of the site, which implies being cut off from friends, family, work colleagues, social groups, etc. When one first agrees to the Terms of Service of a business, one expects the company to stick to their end of the deal, and it is highly questionable for Facebook to feel it is entitled to change its Terms of Service whenever it sees fit.
One might argue, however, that the new policy is not coercive because Facebook users do have a reasonable choice. Closing one’s Facebook account is not the end of one’s social life. We can meet our friends for coffee, talk to our families at home and on the telephone when we are not at home, and spend time with our work colleagues at lunchtime or at the pub. As more people and institutions have Facebook pages, however, the more costly it becomes to close one’s account. People who close their accounts do lose hundreds of connections—the kinds of relationships that are not close enough to be maintained by personal interaction, email, or phone calls. This is particularly true for people who live outside their home countries; given our time limitations, there are only so many people one can stay in touch with through email and Skype, and that number is significantly smaller than the number of people with whom one can stay in touch through Facebook. While a robber can exercise coercion by imposing on you the odious choice of “Your money or your life,” Facebook imposes on you the choice of “Your privacy or (many of) your relationships.”
It thus seems that people who are not on Facebook are put at a significant social and professional disadvantage by not enjoying the benefits that have become the common standard in their social circles. Many will think that non-Facebook users are fully responsible for their disadvantage, since they are free to decide whether they want to use the social network or not. Yet it seems that there are strong moral reasons to believe that people should not be forced to choose between surrendering their privacy to businesses or suffering marginalisation.
Wertheimer, Alan (1987). Coercion, Princeton: Princeton University Press.