Facebook’s new data sharing policies, translated so a 13-year-old can understand

Don’t let Facebook’s terms of service get lost in translation.
Don’t let Facebook’s terms of service get lost in translation.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Facebook wants to be friends again.

In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media behemoth has faced a lot of backlash over its intrusive data collection policies. In an attempt to give users the impression that they have more control over their personal information, the company released a new update to its Terms of Service on April 4—its first since 2015—written in relatively friendly, comprehensible language.

Even so, the contract is non-negotiable—which means that parents whose teens are on the social-media site should make sure kids know what they’re signing up for. (You must be at least 13 years old to have a Facebook account, although plenty of underage kids have managed to make their way onto the platform.) Facebook is hardly the hip social network for teens; kids are defecting to more popular services like Snapchat and Instagram (owned by Facebook). But plenty still remain.

We’ve put together a breakdown of the biggest takeaways from Facebook’s new terms of service, including its data and privacy policies, to help you translate it for your teen—or anyone else who could use a little clarification.

Five takeaways about Facebook’s agenda

1. Facebook wants to connect the world.
That’s not as pure a motivation as it might sound. The company says its mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.

If you are explaining this to a 13-year-old, point out that the agreement is a commercial one: The more connected you, and billions of others, are to Facebook, the more money Facebook makes by selling your personal information, and the more powerful it becomes. Too much power concentrated anywhere—politics, business, philanthropy—often ends badly.

2. Facebook wants to personalize your experience.

The terms of service state, We use the data we have—for example, about the connections you make, the choices and settings you select, and what you share and do on and off our Products—to personalize your experience.

Basically, this means that Facebook uses every bit of personal information it can, collected both on and off Facebook, to entice advertisers. The better the company knows you through the personal information you share with your friends and family, the more likely they are to be able to sell you stuff you want.

This kind of personalized experience can have big ripple effects for a young person. “It’s not just that your teen is getting targeted ads, they are getting targeted news, and a targeted and personalized reality,” says Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that reviews and rates media. That can become problematic at a societal level. “Teenagers are still growing and figuring out who they want to be,”Johnson said. “We want to expose them to everything we can and not have one company labeling them and limiting them from the beginning.”

So can we simply opt out of the personalization, and consent to receiving boring, generalized, non-specific ads? No such luck, according to Josephine Wolff, an assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Facebook doesn’t care about whether you want to see ads tailored to you, they care about being able to sell those ads at higher rates by offering specific targeted demographic groups to their ad buyers,” she said.

3. Facebook wants to help you connect with people and organizations you care about.

We use the data we have to make suggestions for you and others – for example, groups to join, events to attend, Pages to follow or send a message to, shows to watch, and people you may want to become friends with. Stronger ties make for better communities, and we believe our services are most useful when people are connected to people, groups, and organizations they care about.

In other words: Facebook wants you to find lots more people and information that you might be interested in, so that you spend lots more time on Facebook. The more attention Facebook can claim, the better it knows you, and the more targeted its advertisers can be.

Also: While stronger ties can build better communities, and social connection has positive emotional and physical effects, connecting with people and organizations that are similar to yourself can also sow discontent and strife. Consider how Facebook may have influenced both the US presidential election and the Brexit vote.

4. Facebook’s terms of service are just a small part of the story.

Facebook begins its terms of service with a very important caveat (emphasis ours):

These Terms govern your use of Facebook and the products, features, apps, services, technologies, and software we offer (the Facebook Products or Products), except where we expressly state that separate terms (and not these) apply.

In other words, the new terms of service, written in a way that’s easy to understand, are not the whole deal. To understand your contract with Facebook, you have to connect the different sections that govern use; most notably, you have to look at the company’s data and privacy policies and understand how these work together with, or undermine, the service terms.

The contract has multiple parts, which makes it slightly misleading. If Facebook was actually trying to make things clear to users, it would insert all its easy-to-read policies in one simple section. But that would be extremely difficult, given the company’s mixed messaging and purposes: to please advertisers, it has to collect information about how you use the web, but to please users, it must not seem like a hungry giant making money off of your content.

Understanding each part individually, and then figuring out how they work together, isn’t obvious or easy for anyone. And the company’s data and privacy policies may not be providing the level of protection you want for your content.

Six takeaways about Facebook’s data and privacy policies

These are drawn from Facebook’s data policy, which is included as a link-out to a separate page within its Terms of Service.

1. Facebook doesn’t sell your personal information—but there’s still reason to be cautious.

Facebook’s data use section notes, We don’t sell any of your information to anyone, and we never will. That sounds reassuring. It shouldn’t be. While Facebook doesn’t sell information like your name and address, its goal is to compile a digital encyclopedia about everything from your shopping habits to your political preferences, and aggregate that data in a way that will allow advertisers to target you.

The company notes: We provide general demographic and interest information to advertisers (for example, that an ad was seen by a woman between the ages of 25 and 34 who lives in Madrid and likes software engineering) to help them better understand their audience. We also confirm which Facebook ads led you to make a purchase or take an action with an advertiser.

“They might not be sharing this information, but they are collecting thousands of data points and making detailed profiled of users,” says Fox Johnson. “That’s worrisome if they sell it or if they keep it.”

Here are a just a few of the things Facebook collects:

  • We collect information about the people, Pages, accounts, hashtags, and groups you are connected to and how you interact with them across our Products, such as people you communicate with the most or groups you are part of. We also collect contact information if you choose to upload, sync or import it from a device
  • We collect information about how you use our Products, such as the types of content you view or engage with; the features you use; the actions you take; the people or accounts you interact with; and the time, frequency and duration of your activities.

2. Changing your privacy and ad settings won’t stop Facebook from collecting your data.

Whether or not you change privacy settings about what you share with friends or strangers won’t necessarily limit the information about your web usage that Facebook can harvest and sell. (Indeed, even deleting your account may not keep you entirely out of Facebook’s reach.)

Similarly, even if you manage your ad and data settings, that limits what information outside parties receive about you. Facebook still has access.

“A lot of the controls they offer seem to be about limiting the kinds of ads you see, and not what kind of information is collected,” says Fox Johnson. That said, she suggests that both parents and teens opt out of Facebook’s default ad settings, including “Ads based on data from Facebook partners” (data that advertisers, app developers, and publishers provide based on your activity off Facebook), and “Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company products that you see elsewhere” (information Facebook gives to others about your Facebook activity, and your activity on other Facebook products).

To change the ad settings on Facebook, click on “Settings,” then “Ads” toward the bottom of the list. You’ll see a list of the default ad settings mentioned above. Click through each option to turn them off.

3. Facebook collects information about you even when you are not on Facebook.

Lots of websites and apps “use Facebook services to make their content and ads more engaging and relevant,” a Facebook representative told Quartz. These services include social plugins, such as Facebook’s “like” and “share” buttons, which “make other sites more social and help individuals share content on Facebook.” It also allows everyone involved to collect more information about you.

As Casey Oppenheim, co-founder of data security firm Disconnect, told Consumer Reports: “Most people don’t understand that Facebook is tracking you when you’re not on the platform.”

4. Facebook collects data about your spending habits, including your personal financial details.

Facebook tracks what you buy, who you donate to, and your detailed financial information. To wit: If you use our Products for purchases or other financial transactions (such as when you make a purchase in a game or make a donation), we collect information about the purchase or transaction. This includes payment information, such as your credit or debit card number and other card information; other account and authentication information; and billing, shipping and contact details

5. Other people can give Facebook information about you.

We also receive and analyze content, communications and information that other people provide when they use our Products. This can include information about you, such as when others share or comment on a photo of you, send a message to you, or upload, sync or import your contact information.

6. Facebook can also collect information from your devices, including your photos and GPS location.

Whether you use a computer, phone, tablet, or other web-connected device, Facebook is collecting information about those devices, including battery level, signal strength, available storage space, browser type, app and file names and types, and plugins…. information about operations and behaviors performed on the device, such as whether a window is foregrounded or backgrounded…unique identifiers, device IDs, and other identifiers, such as from games, apps or accounts you use, and Family Device…and, unless you actually alter your settings, your photos, GPS location and camera.

The upshot

The tech landscape is changing fast. European citizens will soon have new rights under the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect May 25 (paywall). The regulations may force companies collecting information on customers to have clear consent from consumers about sharing their data, and potentially allow more pathways for information to be truly deleted from sites and server. The penalties for failing to uphold these standards can go up to €20m, or 4% of a company’s annual revenue (whichever is highest). It’s still a work in progress, but Europe’s initiative may shape future regulations and policies.

We live in a world where the concept of privacy already seems outdated. But that is largely because we’ve decided not to inquire about what happens when we trade it for convenience. The clarity of Facebook’s terms of service, along with the updates from other tech companies ranging from Twitter to LinkedIn, is a marked improvement over previous iterations. But adults have a responsibility to help kids understand how they can protect themselves. History will show how much power the world has already ceded to Silicon Valley. Do your part in helping your kid hang onto whatever little bit they can.