NYT: Congress Fell into Facebook’s ‘Semantic Trap’ About Selling User Data

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Ludovic Marin/Getty
CHARLIE NASH

The New York Times published an article, Wednesday, warning readers not to fall for Facebook’s “semantic traps” on data-selling practices. In it, a Stanford professor argues “Facebook has always sold data to advertisers, and it probably always will.”

In the article, titled “Congress May Have Fallen for Facebook’s Trap, but You Don’t Have To,” Michal Kosinski, an associate professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, declared, “Facebook has always sold data to advertisers, and it probably always will.”

Responding to Facebook’s claims that it does “not sell data to advertisers,” and “has never sold anyone’s data,” Kosinski proclaimed, “As a data scientist, I am shocked that anyone continues to believe this claim.”

“Each time you click on a Facebook ad, Facebook sells data on you to that advertiser. This is such a basic property of online targeted advertising that it would be impossible to avoid, even if Facebook somehow wanted to,” he explained. “Facebook has a lot of data on their users and is eager to monetize it. The advertisers are encouraged to selectively target people according to a mind-boggling range of personal characteristics. Some, such as age, gender or location, are not overly intimate. Others, such as your political views, family size, education, occupation, marital status or interest in a gay dating app, are highly personal.”

“When the company argues that it is not selling data, but rather selling targeted advertising, it’s luring you into a semantic trap, encouraging you to imagine that the only way of selling data is to send advertisers a file filled with user information,” Kosinski stated. “Congress may have fallen for this trap set up by Mr. Zuckerberg, but that doesn’t mean you have to. The fact that your data is not disclosed in an Excel spreadsheet but through a click on a targeted ad is irrelevant. Data still changes hands and goes to the advertiser.”

Kosinski then went on to claim that it’s “like a bar’s giving away a free martini with every $12 bag of peanuts and then claiming that it’s not selling drinks.”

“Facebook cannot be trusted to fix this problem itself. Would you trust Big Tobacco’s claims about lung cancer? What about Big Sugar’s claims about obesity?” the associate professor concluded. “Policymakers have no choice but to step in, restore the balance of power and protect citizens’ privacy.”

Charlie Nash is a reporter for Breitbart Tech. You can follow him on Twitter @MrNashington, or like his page at Facebook.

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