Facebook’s latest news feed change is just too creepy

On Friday, Facebook announced that it is changing the algorithm that determines what it shows on your news feed to “to factor in a new signal—how much time you spend viewing a story in your News Feed.”

iStock_000045129604_SmallYou read that right. Facebook is constantly watching what is on your screen. Not just what you actively click on. But what is displayed on your screen.

Up until now, the Facebook algorithm selected content that it would display to you based on active factors like whether you had shared or commented on or favourited a post. In other words, you knew that if you did something active, Facebook would know that.

But this new announcement suggests that Facebook is always aware of what is displaying on your screen – even if you don’t do anything active to it.

It feels to me that Facebook is violating my privacy. It is doing something that we see portrayed on crime shows or hear about in urban tales of hacking. It’s watching the screen on my computer. It’s watching what I see – even if I don’t do anything active with that content.

I don’t want to be watched this way. Facebook, I do NOT give you my permission to watch what is on the screen of my computer. Please leave me this bit of privacy. Please back away from using this power. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.

Facebook provides an example of why they are making this change that raises the hairs on the back of my next. According to Facebook,

For example, you may scroll quickly through your News Feed and like a photo of your friend’s graduation, followed by sharing a funny post from your sister. You keep scrolling and happen upon a post your cousin shared detailing everything she did and saw on her recent trip. Her post even includes a photo. You spend time reading her post and the interesting discussion about the best places to eat that had broken out in the comments on this post, but you don’t feel inclined to like or comment on it yourself. Based on the fact that you didn’t scroll straight past this post and it was on the screen for more time than other posts that were in your News Feed, we infer that it was something you found interesting and we may start to surface more posts like that higher up in your News Feed in the future.”

Did you get that. Facebook acknowledges that we may choose not to make a public gesture – a like, a share, a favourite – about a piece of content we see. And you’d think that if we see something but keep our comments to ourselves that we have protected our privacy. But not in the world of Facebook. It apparently is watching every word and image that scrolls down our screens, including how long we linger over a particular item. Now that’s creepy. And that’s overly intrusive.

You might say, “If you don’t like it, don’t use Facebook.” Well the simple fact is that Facebook has been so successful in working its way onto so many cellphones and computers that not using it carries a significant social cost. To not use Facebook is equivalent to not going for a walk in your neighbourhood or not using the phone. It has become a utility that we cannot do without.

I would argue that, thanks to its success in becoming ubiquitous and essential to our social lives, it carries an increased responsibility to us. And that responsibility is to behave in a way that we feel comfortable with. That means there are some things that Facebook should not do – like watch us constantly, even when we are not actively interacting with it. Facebook may be able to do it. But that doesn’t mean it should. We all learned early that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do it.

Facebook is saying that it will limit the use of this information. According to HuffPost, “A spokeswoman for Facebook told The Huffington Post that the amount of time spent looking at content would not be made available to publishers or advertisers, and that it is purely used to determine how content is surfaced on the News Feed.”

For now, Facebook is not sharing this data. But let’s remember that Facebook makes its money selling advertising. We the users are the product. And it has changed its practices whenever it felt that it would be beneficial to Facebook. So, the fact that it says it is not doing something now should not be taken as any comfort that it won’t change that policy tomorrow.

The only defence against this possibility is to stop Facebook from starting down this path.

So, how can we stop this? Well a first step is for Facebook users to voice our disapproval over this move and to call on Facebook to stop this practice. That’s what I’m doing here. And I encourage you to do it as well. On your Facebook feed. On Twitter. On Reddit. On every social network you use.

But do I think that will change Facebook’s mind? Not likely.

This may be one of those instances when we have to turn to government to protect our rights. And the right to privacy is one right that we should be vigilant to preserve. We’ve seen a heightened scrutiny of Facebook’s privacy practices in Europe. I think this latest move is something that privacy commissioners across jurisdictions should examine. In the past, the Privacy Commissioner in Canada has been willing to challenge Facebook’s practices in the past. This is a perfect opportunity for privacy commissioners everywhere to engage with Facebook.

  • Renate Kita

    I always select most recent on my new feed, rather than top stories, as I have never yet agreed with Facebook’s picks of ‘top stories’.

  • Are you familiar with Google Analytics? You probably have them on this blog, if you’re smart. They tell you what pages people look at, where they entered the site and what pages they go to while they’re there. It tells you how long they stay as well as where in the world they came from, plus a lot of other very helpful information for the blog owner. Are you also aware that Google, as well as Facebook and many other websites, use something called retargeting? They track your habits online so they can target ads specifically to you. Maybe you’ve noticed that when you read an article about a certain car or electronic device you suddenly start seeing ads for those cars or devices on those websites?

    If Facebook’s newest algorithm change creeps you out I recommend you get off the Internet as quickly as possible because everything you do is watched, and not just how long you look at a post.

    • Iain Sword

      Hi there,
      I understand your argument, but the difference here is identifiability. GA tells you what people did on your site, but not who those people are. But Facebook is using this information to build up a very thorough profile of every single user. I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook knows more about you or me than even our closest friends & family. That’s the creepy part.

      I do agree with you about remarketing, though. It’s something I personally despise, but in its defence they still don’t know who the individual is – remarketing follows the device, not the user. And tools like Trackerblock or Ghostery can help users protect their privacy to some degree (This is not a justification for remarketing as I don’t think the onus should be on the user – maximum privacy should be the default).

      Just thought I’d share some thoughts, and also play a little devil’s advocate 😉
      All the best!

  • RJ

    If you don’t like it, then don’t use Facebook. I think the Government has more pressing issues.

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