With limited information and an absence of meaningful user choice, Facebook’s behavioural profiling and resulting targeted advertising practices do not meet the requirements for legally valid consent, according to a new report (PDF) from experts at the University of Leuven and Brussels Free University.
The report was commissioned by the Belgian Data Protection Authority, the CPP and is an in-depth analysis of both data practices and the notices and policies given to users to explain them.
Some of the interesting findings of the report are:
- Opt-out controls for advertising are insufficiently clear or comprehensive enough to meet the standard of consent under data protection law.
- User privacy settings can lead to a false sense of control, as they do not really limit how Facebook can use data for advertising purposes, more just what other users can see.
- Use of user generated content by Facebook for commercial purposes is particularly singled out as controls to prevent this are largely absent.
- Many of the contract terms could be considered as unfair practices under consumer protection laws, including the licences to re-use copyright material claimed by Facebook.
- Some adverts may be considered to be equivalent to direct marketing communications, which by law require opt-out controls, which are not provided.
- Use of location data should be subject to opt-in rather than opt-out consent.
There was also an example of how user sentiment can be easily twisted or removed. An advert for a fitness program appeared to have been endorsed by a user who had in fact been critical of it.
The authors also highlighted a point that is often overlooked, Facebook is not so much a social network as it is a ‘vast advertising network’ – and this has become especially true as it has acquired other businesses like Instagram and WhatsApp. These two in particular have helped it obtain more detailed information about its users.
Additionally, following the acquisition of ad platform company Atlas Solutions from Microsoft, it has created a new opportunity to advertised to people while they surf, or ‘off platform’ as it is often called.
This capability was something I have commented on elsewhere – and I understand the research team will be looking in more depth at this in the future.