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Under mounting criticism of its data privacy policies, Facebook is finally scaling back some of the data that it shares with its advertising and marketing partners. If you’re a consumer, this is good news: it means that advertisers will have a much more difficult time tracking you all over the web. However, if you’re an advertiser, this is going to be bad news: it means the whole system of data-driven digital advertising put into place by social media giants like Facebook might soon be coming to an end.
Facebook responds to pressure and criticism
Of course, all of this did not happen overnight. And it certainly did not happen because Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suddenly woke up to the very real concerns of Facebook users. The new privacy update to the Facebook marketing partner program is the next step in what has really been a series of small, incremental changes put into place by the social media giant over the past 24 months. In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, which first exploded into the public limelight back in March 2018, Facebook has been under mounting pressure to do something – anything! – to make its platform much less of a data privacy nightmare for users.
First came the expanded privacy options for Facebook users, giving them new ways to hide their personal data from advertisers by toggling a few buttons in their Facebook settings. Then came a review of all the developer partners that had been ruthlessly exploiting all the loopholes in Facebook’s terms of service to create apps specifically designed to scoop up as much user data as possible. In some cases, these apps even worked in the background on a user’s smartphone, collecting data (such as GPS location data) without the knowledge or consent of users.
Closing the data spigot for advertisers
And now comes a wholesale review of the entire system of digital marketing put into place by Facebook, with a focus on what data is being shared, and with whom. As part of new changes to its advanced mobile measurement program, Facebook will now hide some of the data that it once showed advertisers. And it will tighten up the guidelines for how advertisers can use, trade or sell that data. In some cases, advertisers were collecting amazingly detailed personal data on users, and then turning around and selling that data to third parties. This is what led to the whole convoluted data ecosystem on Facebook, in which hundreds of different companies might be tracking your every move on the social media platform.
The new changes are meant to ensure that only a small group of trusted marketing partners get access to sensitive data, and that as much data as possible is shared in aggregate form rather than individually. As a result, it will become much harder for advertisers to tie specific user profiles to actions taken online. And it will even become harder to track specific device-level data (i.e. advertisers tracking devices rather than profiles to follow you around the web).
The new Facebook, same as the old Facebook
On the surface, it looks like Facebook got the memo on data privacy. After increased congressional and regulatory oversight (including a massive $5 billion fine from the FTC last summer), it would appear that Facebook is finally fixing things and cleaning up the system. Certainly, Facebook would like its users to believe this – it is now joining tech companies like Apple in promoting all the privacy options available to its user base.
At the end of the day, however, Facebook makes its money from advertising. Thus, if advertisers aren’t happy with the new scaled back data privileges, Facebook might need to make concessions elsewhere. If not, then advertisers might begin to abandon Facebook for other social media platforms that are much more advertiser-friendly. And that’s why Facebook is unlikely to make any more major changes until the results of the 2020 presidential election are known – if the next administration threatens to break up Facebook into a million tiny pieces, Facebook will have to make major changes. But if the business-friendly Trump administration remains in place, these tiny incremental changes to privacy might be enough to keep regulators at bay.