Let’s Talk About Mark Zuckerberg’s Claim that Facebook 'Doesn’t Sell Data'

The Facebook CEO and founder has been repeating the claim that, technically, the site doesn’t sell users’ data during his Congressional hearings.

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Apr 11 2018, 3:12pm

Image: Screengrab/US House of Representatives 

In case you haven’t heard, Facebook does not sell data. At least, that’s what Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has been adamantly reiterating during his hearings with Congress on data privacy this week.

This is, of course, technically true. It’s also an expert-level demonstration of hair-splitting.

Tuesday, during his five-hour hearing with Senators, Zuckerberg repeated the claim eight separate times. On Wednesday, it popped up again just 20 minutes into the hearing.

“There's a very common misperception about Facebook—that we sell data to advertisers. And we do not sell data to advertisers. We don't sell data to anyone,” Zuckerberg testified on Tuesday. “What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they want to reach, and then we do the placement.”

But as Representative Greg Walden, the chair of the the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, pointed out on Wednesday, user data is how Facebook makes money even if it’s not selling the data outright.

“I understand that Facebook does not sell user data, per se, in the traditional sense,” Walden said. “But it’s also just as true that Facebook’s user data is probably the most valuable thing about Facebook—in fact it may be the only truly valuable thing about Facebook.”

As noble as it may seem that Facebook isn’t selling your private data on an open market, the reality is that it serves Facebook to keep that data under lock and key. It’s valuable, and by not allowing other entities access to it, Facebook can monetize that same data over and over again. If it sold the data to an advertiser, that data would lose some of its value.

There’s also the fact that third-party apps can gain access to this data and, as we’ve learned, sell it. With Cambridge Analytica, a third party gained access to user data and then gave or sold it to the data analytics company; there are other examples of third-party apps selling Facebook data to data brokers, which can then reuse it on Facebook and elsewhere. Even if Facebook wasn’t doing the selling in those cases, it lost control of user data and allowed it to be sold.

The truth is that the data users provide to Facebook is one of its most valuable resources. It is collected, stored, and analyzed so that the company can profit from it, and as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has revealed, many Facebook users were unaware of this fact. One of the biggest questions of the hearings has been why Facebook didn’t do more to make it clear to its users how it all worked, a question to which Zuckerberg hasn’t yet had a concise answer. Instead, he’s been focusing on repeating a line meant to assuage fears, because Facebook doesn’t sell your data. But it certainly profits from it.

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