This is how little power people have facing Facebook

An unfair battle.
An unfair battle.
Image: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein
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The scandals that hit Facebook this year might make some people delete their accounts, and lead others to become more conscientious users. But the reality is, no matter what you do, it’s hard to escape Facebook and some of its sketchy practices.

In September, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg faced the US Senate Intelligence Committee to answer questions about foreign influence on the platform. This week, the committee released a 62-page document in which Facebook answers some follow-up questions. For the most part, Facebook doesn’t reveal anything new in its responses, but this kind of question-and-answer format forces the company into unflattering statements that are now a matter of record.

In one example of Facebook’s power over its users revealed by its responses, it confirmed, as noted by Sarah Frier of Bloomberg, that users do not have a way to opt out of being a subject of research that may be conducted on the platform. Vice-chairman of the committee, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner brought up a controversial 2013 study in which researchers manipulated users’ emotions by skewing content users saw on the site. He said his major concern was the lack of informed consent by users. He asked: “Does Facebook provide for individualized, informed consent in all instances, including all cases where groups of users are exposed to novel interfaces or services not available to other users?”

Pointing to its data policies, Facebook explains that it may use user information for research. “Users do not have the ability to opt out of such research; however, we disclose our work with academic researchers in our Data Policy, and our work with academics is conducted subject to strict privacy and research protocols.”

Warner also focused on whether Facebook users were aware of the extent of the company’s data collection operation. He asked whether Facebook thought its users had an understanding that their data could be collected even when they are not on Facebook. In its response, rather than discuss its registered users, Facebook talked about a different group, eliciting an answer that CNN reporter Donnie O’Sullivan called “Orwellian” on Twitter:

Facebook does not create profiles for people without a Facebook account (whom we call “nonregistered users”). However, we do receive some information from devices and browsers that may be used by such non-registered users.

That Facebook tracks people not on the platform was something that the company’s CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted in front of Congress in April. Facebook contends this kind of data collection is a basic function of the internet.

Registered or not, you just can’t win with the Silicon Valley giant.

Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a question to senator Richard Burr, when in fact they were all from senator Mark Warner.