Setting the Record Straight on a Belgian Academic Report

By Richard Allan, Vice President of Policy, Europe

Over the past week, a team of privacy experts and engineers at Facebook analyzed the claims presented in a recent report authored by a group of researchers in Belgium.

Our findings: The report gets it wrong multiple times in asserting how Facebook uses information to provide our service to more than a billion people around the world.

Because we believe the facts speak clearly, here’s a list of corrections and clarifications for a number of misstatements. This list isn’t exhaustive; it instead reflects the main problems we have with the report.

Claim: Facebook surreptitiously uses cookies to track people everywhere on the web.

Fact: We are transparent about our use of cookies, and have long disclosed their use to improve your experience on Facebook.

We want people to understand how cookies are used and we explain it clearly. We use cookies in three main ways:

  • Security – Cookies tell us when people are logged into Facebook. That’s why you don’t have to enter your name and password every time you visit, and so we can alert you in case someone else is trying to log in as you from an unknown computer.
  • Personalization – Cookies help us remember things like what language you use. They’re how we know who you are when you click Like or make a comment using Facebook on a publisher’s website.
  • Ads – Other cookies help make sure the ads you see are interesting and help us measure how effective they are. Facebook is offered free of charge, and we do that by showing ads we think are relevant to people’s interests. For example, a business might ask us to show you an ad on Facebook after you visited their web site or mobile app.

Most internet services and publishers use cookies for these same reasons.

Claim: Facebook doesn’t respect people’s choice to opt out of behavioral ads when they visit websites and apps off of Facebook.

Fact: If someone opts out, we no longer use information about the websites and apps that person uses off Facebook to target ads to them.

People can opt out of seeing ads on Facebook that are based on the websites and apps they use off Facebook through the industry-standard Digital Advertising Alliance opt out, the European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance opt out or the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada opt out. Here, they can opt out of these ads from Facebook and from more than a hundred other companies. People can also opt out using their phone settings.

Facebook honors this choice on any device where you use Facebook, whether it’s your phone, tablet, or desktop. When you opt out, Facebook no longer shows you these types of ads, but it also means Facebook does not add this information to the interest lists we use to decide what ads to show you.

Facebook does receive standard “web impressions,” or website visit information, when people visit sites with our plugins or other integrations. The authors misleadingly call this “tracking.” Unlike many companies, we explain how we will use this information and the controls we honor and offer. And, we apply the choices people make before using information for behavioral ads.

Claim: There’s no way to opt out of social ads.

Fact: You can opt out of having your social actions paired with ads.

We believe it is important to provide you with choice over what you see when it comes to ads. People can control who sees their social actions paired with ads: either friends or no one

Claim: When people opt out of ads based on apps and sites they use, that doesn’t apply across all devices.

Fact: It does – Facebook respects your opt-out decision across every device you use.

We have been clear that Facebook honors this choice on every device where you use Facebook, whether it’s your phone, tablet, or desktop.

You can opt out of this type of ad targeting from all participating companies including Facebook that use the industry-standard Digital Advertising Alliance opt out, the European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance opt out or the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada opt out and on your mobile devices using the controls that iOS and Android provide.

Claim: Facebook wants to use Social Plugins to add cookies to the browsers of people who don’t use Facebook.

Fact: We don’t, and this is not our practice. However, the researchers did find a bug that may have sent cookies to some people when they weren’t on Facebook. This was not our intention – a fix for this is already under way.

Our practice is not to place cookies on the browsers of people who have visited sites with Social Plugins but who have never visited to sign up for an account.

The authors identified a few instances when cookies may have been placed, and we began to address those inadvertent cases as soon as they were brought to our attention.

Claim: Facebook isn’t clear with people about how advertising works.

Fact: We provide multiple ways to learn how ads work on Facebook, and the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has audited our practices.

We want people to understand how ads work on Facebook and we offer many resources to help them do so. For example, with ad preferences, you can click “Why did I see this ad?” from every ad on Facebook, . People can see and control the actual interests that we use to deliver ads on Facebook. Our About Advertising on Facebook Page provides even more information.

We also made public the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s detailed audits of our advertising practices, so that anyone can learn more about the details of how our ads work.

Claim: Apps have access to people’s friends lists by default.

Fact: Apps do not have access to people’s friends lists by default. People can control what third-party apps can see and share.

Before people log in to an app, we ask them to approve the information the app can receive from their account — nothing is sent until you approve it. We always continue to improve our granular app controls, which let people select what to share when they log in to new apps. People also can change their selections any time for the apps they are using through our app dashboard. A year ago, we announced that apps would no longer receive a person’s entire friend list, only the friends who already use the app and only if people choose to share this list. That policy is already in effect for many apps, and it goes into effect for all apps on April 30, 2015.

Claim: Facebook’s 2015 Data Policy expanded how information can be shared among its companies.

Fact: Nothing in Facebook’s updated Data Policy changed our commitments about how information is shared among our companies.

When we updated our Data Policy in 2015, we were clear that it did not change the commitments our companies have made; their terms and privacy policies continue to be in effect.

In the policy, we note that information may be shared among those companies. This disclosure is not new; it merely provides more detail by listing out each of the companies in the Facebook family of companies.

Claim: Facebook doesn’t provide controls over the sharing of location information – it’s “all-or-nothing.”

Fact: You control whether to share location information with Facebook, and we don’t store a history of your precise location unless you give us permission.

Location-sharing is not a “binary choice” on Facebook, as the report claimed. Location-based products on Facebook offer controls that allow people to decide whether they want to share their location information, and they can continue to use Facebook without sharing this data. For example, people can choose to share their location by checking in at one restaurant but not another. Nearby Friends, which is currently available only in the US, is an optional product where people can choose to share their location with friends.

People can turn off the location setting off on their phone at any time. Although certain location-enabled services may be affected, people can continue using Facebook.

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