When I was a younger writer, I submitted a few pieces of work to sites like Thought Catalog, and HelloGiggles, and almost immediately pulled my work back after reading the publishing policies. While my name would get credit on their site, I would lose all control of the content that was published, and could not maintain any rights to my own work.
I didn’t like that, so I abstained from working with those sites. Don’t get me wrong, those sites are excellent for budding writers who want to get their work published, and name out there to thousands of readers. It’s a pretty fair trade. I however, am more comfortable with maintaining the creative licensing of work that I put my name on. I am not prepared to give over control of my work just to get my name out there.
Fast forward to today, and I still do not publish on sites whose privacy policies I do not agree with, but somewhat mindlessly post my work on Facebook and Instagram. At first I posted my work on these social media sites without considering the policy. “Everyone uses these sites,” I told myself, “and I need them in order to get my name out there as a writer. Whatever is going on in the background is a necessary evil. At least here I have full creative control of what I post.”
Then Facebook announced that it was changing its policies in Fall of 2020. With this announcement, I chose to finally read the policies front to back like I have with the other media platforms I engage.
Without being too dramatic about this, what I read in the policies not only felt violating to me as an individual and to my Constitutional right to privacy, but I was upset by learning what I was actually consenting to. I had been thoughtful about where I posted my work, and so careless about where I posted some of the most intimate details about myself (both knowingly and unknowingly through data collection and the app’s background access to other areas of my cell phone).
What is Data?
Data is, in the context of this conversation, anything you put on an app or allow the app to have access to. This is name, email, address, phone number, pictures, written captions, and hashtags that you post. Data also includes things like relationship status, religious and political views, how long you look at a picture or link, what pages you shop, what hashtags you click on, and comments you have deleted. It also includes information that you link from other sites.
This means that if you log into partnering sites using Facebook (like when you create a new account and you can choose email or Facebook to log in), let’s use for example a fitness app, you are giving Facebook the right to collect all the data from this app as well. On a fitness app this may include your height and weight, your preferred exercise method, what you eat and drink if you log your daily consumption.
Why Do They Want My Data?
This answer ignores some of the other complex cyber-security reasons that may interest bad actors. For simplicity, we will stick to just the company’s primary reason for collecting data.
Your data is very valuable to advertisers, so Facebook and Instagram make money by selling off the details you put online. Advertisers can use this to target advertisements specifically to you. This helps them make more money. If you look at a lot of fitness posts, your ads will likely begin to reflect fitness gear or workout programs from companies that can sell to you. If you talk about cooking a lot, home goods and kitchen accessories are likely to make an appearance on your feed.
Advertisers are smart, and they are able to use your own psychology against you. By marketing to you through colors, sounds, shapes, words, emotions, and frequency, companies are able to capitalize on your patterns to get you to spend money.
Additionally, you may also notice that more frequent users always pop up on your feed, but an old friend who doesn’t post often isn’t showing up on your timeline at all. This is because Facebook is set up to give exposure to people who create interesting posts and post often. They endorse these users because these users help the company ensure that you keep coming back to their site to see your friend, while they slip valuable advertisements onto your feed in between friend or family posts. People who do not post, or who post links that direct viewers away from the platform, will get limited exposure.
To be very clear, Facebook is turning people who regularly post into the product. We are addicted not to the site itself, but to the chemical reactions going off in our head when we engage the site, and this is what often turns us into mindless scrollers.
By using their free platform, you are the product, your activity is making the company A LOT of money, and your details are being sold to reinforce a multi-billion dollar industry, while you are likely making no money yourself.
So What’s the Big Deal?
Well, there’s a few big deals. The first is what else they are collecting.
WHAT ELSE THEY ARE COLLECTING:
According to Instagram’s Data Policy, they are also collecting the following information from your phone when you use the app:
- Taken directly from IG’s policy – Instagram calls the camera on your phone, “Our [instagram’s] camera.” This means that whether or not you are on the app, what is captured on your phone’s camera and microphone, you are giving them rights to access, analyze, and use. YES, they can see you, and they can hear you, and yes they are doing this, even if you are not using the app.
- Contact information that is programmed into your phone. This includes people in your phone, recent call history, etc.
- Taken directly from IG’s policy – “Device attributes: information such as the operating system, hardware and software versions, battery level, signal strength, available storage space, browser type, app and file names and types, and plugins.”
- Taken directly from IG’s policy – “Device operations: information about operations and behaviors performed on the device, such as whether a window is foregrounded or backgrounded, or mouse movements (which can help distinguish humans from bots).” I want to really emphasize this point – THEY ARE LOOKING AT WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING AT ON YOUR PHONE IN THE BACKGROUND. This means the internet search history that has nothing to do with your activity on the app.
- They are looking at the other apps you are logged into the how much and in which ways you engage the app.
- Taken directly from IG’s policy – “Device signals: Bluetooth signals, and information about nearby Wi-Fi access points, beacons, and cell towers.” This means that your location is being tracked at all times…but you already knew that.
- They are tracking information you send and receive through text messages including pictures, locations, and other personal information.
The second big deal is for what purpose they are collecting data.
FOR WHAT PURPOSE:
The purpose of collecting this information is relatively standard. I will discuss my personal thoughts later in this article.
The list in their policy includes reasons such as improving the app, the products, promotions, and advertisements curated for you. To provide analytics to their partner companies and business services. To communicate with users and to promote safety and integrity. All pretty standard.
+ To research and promote social good.
…lets pump the brakes right there. I’m not waging a war on social good, be we need to be really considerate of the fact that this is a centralized body deciding what they believe is socially good.
Why This Matters
Imagine that you are sitting at home, and a robber knocks on your door. They compliment you by “liking” your new haircut, your new couch, and your shoes. You let them in because the compliments feel good. You let them walk around your whole house. You know they are poking around your underwear drawer, taking pictures of your personal belongings, stealing the passwords to your bank accounts and safe, but you do nothing. The robber leaves, and sells the floor plans to your home to the highest bidder. They tell the highest bidder what they read in your diary, what they found in your sock drawer, the combination to your safe, so that the next robber can more easily convince you to give up your money and free thought.
This right here is what we are consenting to when we stay with social media companies that have policies that violate your right to privacy with our consent.
What’s worse though, is that they also walked out with the deed to your home and all your family photos too. That is essentially what Instagram is saying when they call your phone’s camera ‘our [instagram’s] camera.’ And to top that off, they say that one of the reasons they do this is for “social good.” I can’t even touch on how a social good should not be determined by a centralized authority. It’s a post all on it’s own.
Whether you scroll mindlessly, you utilize the free app intentionally, or you are like me and know what is happening in the background, but don’t know how to get off the app because you want to grow your blog, I get it.
The most important thing we need to talk about is not why or how you use the app. It’s most important that we discuss that by using the app we are consenting to their privacy and data policies. We are consenting to a company having unfettered access into the personal details of our lives. We are consenting to a company selling those details to the highest bidder when we never see a dime. We are consenting to how those companies manipulate that data for their own gain, and how they use that information to lobby in favor of policies that protect their practices. We are consenting to how they manipulate information, and how that manipulation of information affects our relationship with each other.
The bleeding irony is that we are a nation of people protesting for our freedoms and right to privacy, while consenting to one of the biggest invasions of privacy at the tap of our own fingers. And the thing is, they didn’t really do anything wrong, because you let them do it. It may be repugnant, but it’s fully within their rights to do it as a private company.
This consent by way of participation shapes policy. It shapes how people interact with one another and how they work together. And it shapes our forward motion socially, politically, and environmentally. It shapes how thinkers engage politics, how they frame ideas and problems, and in turn, shapes how they approach these problems. This is policy.
We are giving away our power of free thought to the highest bidder who isn’t even paying us directly.
The Conversations Happening Around Tech Policy
What is discussed here on the blog today is a very small part of a much larger conversation surrounding tech policy, cyber-security, safety, wellness, and ethical approaches to technology and its power.
Some of the interesting questions being asked in the area of tech policy include the future of artificial intelligence, the limitations of tech warfare, and data security. People in this industry are talking about centralization versus decentralization in technology policy. They are discussing the use of blockchain and the limitations of data protection. People are discussing the corporate limitations and how to protect people, without over-governing companies. Professionals are talking about how to protect people’s right to privacy. People are discussing the role technology plays in liberating oppressed people. They are discussing whether technology is a privilege or a right.
These are really important conversations for us all to participate in. First, because though policy has a lot of ways in which it can be used by bad actors, it has a lot of really powerful potential for good. Second, because technology is here to stay, we need to pragmatic about the conversations we have about how we use and engage it. We need to discuss how we use it (i.e Policy), rather than if we should all throw our phones in the river and go back to cooking solely over an open flame.
To join these conversations, here are a couple good places to start.
Follow me on Clubhouse @taylorpatrice.
I host regular conversations focused on policy.
Follow the Policy Out Loud club on Clubhouse.
Follow @theredline club on Clubhouse.
Stay tuned here for future podcasts.
How You Can Personally Engage These Policies
Though I too would sometimes like to quit social media and live under a rock, I am far too passionate about people and policy and community to do this. And also, my web team says I can’t do that and I pay them the big bucks to be smarter than me.
If you are going to quit the social media drug cold turkey, I am here to cheer you on.
But if quitting isn’t for you, I also get it. There is no need for me to recreate the wheel when a kickass resource already exists. The first thing you should do is check out this really awesome article by Tech Wellness. August Brice goes to great length to tell you how to keep yourself safe on these platforms.
You might also consider alternative apps. I few that have excellent street cred are Clubhouse, and Signal.
You may also consider watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you haven’t already seen it.
Why This Blog’s Social Media Engagement is Changing
You may have noticed the changes that have occurred in the past few weeks. There are more changes to come.
You may have noticed the new newsletter. Join my inner-circle by clicking here. This is where my most interesting and intimate stories come out. I do this on my newsletter because Substack’s data and privacy policies are something I can totally get behind.
You also may have noticed I have become more active on Clubhouse (@taylorpatrice) and Twitter (@policyoutloud).
I am changing the way I interact with social media because I do not consent to the privacy and data policies of a handful of the platforms. I do not consent to the use of my data to sell or sublicense. I do not consent for my work to be used or reworked without my knowledge or without giving me credit. I believe this is abusive to small writers and other independent professionals. I do not consent to my personal details and background programs being accessed as a part of using the platforms. I do not consent to my information being sold to the highest bidder. I do not believe this infringement is necessary in order to create a mutually beneficial platform.
I believe I have a vote in what my world looks like in everything I do, and I am exercising my vote by moving to platforms that protect my privacy and interests. I care to be a policy blogger who takes policy seriously, and who disengages from working with companies with policies to which I do not consent.