CLARIFICATION: The below article is concerned not only with new additions to the Facebook Terms of Service, but the complete Terms of Service, which include some old terms unchanged by Facebook at this time. One new feature is the ability for Facebook to track your location. This ability is contingent on a user's consent.
Over the years, Facebook has slowly expanded its terms and conditions, and last month the company announced that come January 1, 2015 all users will have to agree to new Terms of Service (TOS) or be locked out of the site. Since the social network has roughly 1.32 billion users, that is a BIG deal
But just what is in these new TOS? And should you be worried about them? I spoke with Maninder Gill, a partner at London's Simons Muirhead & Burton and an expert in intellectual property and privacy law to find out just how far Facebook's new terms go and how it will affect your online life.
VICE: So these 10,000-word TOS every company has—they're long, complicated, and boring on purpose, right?
Maninder Gill: To be fair, Facebook has acknowledged that people rarely read these long and complicated TOS and have taken steps to simplify and shorten theirs. However the reality is probably that, no matter how short the TOS are, most people are still not going to read them—they would rather deal with the consequences of blindly agreeing to them than bothering to carefully read them. The reality is that most users would rather agree to sign away some of their privacy rights than not be on Facebook. And Facebook knows this and thus keeps widening its rights to use our data and personal information.
Do you see anything about Facebook's new TOS that are particularly alarming?
Facebook says that it has introduced "Privacy Basics" ["interactive guides to answer the most commonly asked questions about how you can control your information on Facebook"] in a bid to dispel confusion over how your information is used. It claims to be attempting to give more control to its users, provide location information to friends, and improve battery life and signal strength.
That sounds pretty benign. Is there more to it than that?
As with most companies, there is an additional unstated business goal: to sell more advertising. In pursuit of that goal, every bit of personal information is a valuable data point that the company can exploit, and Facebook gathers users' details so that they can sell more advertising at higher rates as, through this, they can truthfully claim to be able to better target their ads.
And how are the new TOS going to help Facebook target ads?
Individuals will be able to allow their friends to track their every move. So users can now inadvertently agree to sign away their privacy rights, implications of which they may not be aware of.
So you just touched upon location tracking. The new terms will require users to accept a new location data policy that says you allow Facebook to use your GPS, Bluetooth, and wi-fi signals to track your location. Should we be fine with this? What's the idea behind it? [UPDATE: The above mentioned terms will apply only to users who give Facebook permission to track their location.]
The idea is to track the location of users in an effort to target them with localized adverts and thus attract more companies to advertise on Facebook at higher rates. The app will help users to find friends who are nearby and alert them when it detects one in close proximity, even when the app is not open on the handset. There is no doubt that this function is intrusive, but Facebook is trying to track us users for even more profits by offering even more carefully targeted adverts.
And they have permission to do this?
Facebook have obtained our permission, as their conditions state that the company may use information on location "to tell you and your friends about people or events nearby, or offer deals to you that you might be interested in." The company said it may also put together data "to serve you ads that might be more relevant." So while it is Big-Brotherish, users have agreed to this by agreeing to use Facebook. The reality is that users would prefer to allow Facebook to use their data in any way than to switch to another social media platform.
Overall, how much will Facebook's new TOS affect our online lives?
With Facebook now knowing where you eat, where you travel, where you shop, and who you are with, they could have a detailed database covering all aspects of users' lives.
Furthermore, the idea now is that we will be targeted with ads that suit our personality—the objective is to change the way we spend and what we spend our money on—we could be subtly psychologically manipulated by large brands, which are richer than many governments, without realizing it. However, most users will not care and will not quit Facebook and will be too apathetic to bother to go into their privacy settings to recalibrate. And Facebook will just get richer and more powerful.
Your expertise covers the crazy stuff companies try to hide in their TOS. How does Facebook compare to most of what you see?
Out of all the TOS I have dealt with in 20 years, Facebook's are the most intrusive. To be granted rights to track an individual's movements, and thus the people that would be with those individuals, and to potentially commercially exploit without permission all pictures posted on Facebook without specific consent, is breath-taking.
Users must take responsibility for their data. Facebook's ability to exploit our data is contingent upon our allowing them to do so. It is up to us to value our privacy and to spend a few minutes setting some restrictions on the privacy settings.
And tinkering with your privacy settings would help you opt out of these intrusive new TOS?
Well, no. You can adjust your settings to change which people can see what you post: Global—which is everyone, the whole internet—Friends of Friends, Just Friends, or you only. Most people will want to set it to Just Friends, but many leave it on Global. However, no matter what settings you use here, these settings only affect the way you share with others. It has no outcome on how Facebook shares your stuff—that's all dictated by the unchangeable TOS that you need to agree to, to be allowed to use Facebook in the first place. [UPDATE: Facebook's ability to share your information is in fact contingent on your settings. However, if someone else with more liberal privacy settings than you uploads a photo of you or tags you in a post, Facebook will be able to use that information according to the terms the uploader has agreed to.]
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article included a response that implied Facebook had shared information with their clients about users' location and who they are with. We currently have no evidence that this is the case.