Facebook, trust and the internet of things

Play in their garden,  agree to their terms, has always been the rule among online and mobile services. Users understand that in return for using free services, their activity within that service is monitored, analyzed, aggregated and sold to the highest bidder. Users accept this invasion and view highly-targeted, so-called “relevant” advertising in return for using the service.

Yet, there seems to be a new uneasiness within this model. And no, I’m not talking about the disturbance of the free-in-return-for-viewing-ads model caused by the new iOS ad blockers. I’m referring to the Facebook hoax currently making the rounds and how, despite its silliness, it could be an indicator in a shift in user complacency in regards to data-collection, data-mining and targeted advertising.

Let’s start with Facebook. About a week ago, a hoax started circulating on the social network that Facebook would begin to charge users £5.99 a month to “keep the subscription of your status to be set to “private.” The only way to prevent this from happening, according to the post, was to copy the entire paragraph and share it in a Facebook status. The pseudo legal text has no legal significance, as explained on Snopes, as users gave up privacy and copyright rights by agreeing to Facebook’s terms of use and by continuing to use Facebook.

Facebook's response in a sponsored post. Trying to use homor to slow the spread of the hoax,

Facebook’s response in a sponsored post. Trying to use humor to slow the spread of the hoax,

Facebook responded with a bit of humor but stated that “Facebook is free and it always will be.” Maybe Facebook thought it would calm users but the hoax status continued to be shared for days. What’s surprising about the hoax is how widespread it was, how many users believed that while posting the fake legal status might not help anything, it certainly can’t hurt. “Better safe than sorry.

What should trouble Facebook in this incident is that users seem to be inclined to believe almost anything about Facebook’s supposedly evil practices. ThinkProgress said it best: “Why is the Facebook hoax so powerful? Because underneath the fiction of it — can’t stress this enough: these statements have zero real legal power — is a very real feeling that people don’t trust Facebook, or any social media site, to actually protect whatever information users think is worth protecting. Facebook’s privacy settings are confusing as all get-out; as soon as you can figure out exactly how those settings operate, Facebook just changes them without warning. Often. Even a fairly tech-savvy user can have a hard time keeping up.”

Which is why Facebook shouldn’t have dismissed the hoax and the gullible users who shared it so quickly. Instead of mocking the users who posted the copyright notice, perhaps Facebook should look at the number of users who shared the status as an indicator of trust. Many, many users believe that Facebook is capable of privacy deceptions. For a company created to connect people, this lack of trust should not be a minor issue.

Perhaps a bigger issue is whether users feel the same about other services. Users have long been required to agree to “terms of use” before they start using any service. In the EULA, crouched in legalese and over many, many pages of small text, is everything company X can do with the information collected about the user. I’m willing to bet that 99.99% of users don’t read the terms of use that they agree to. Maybe it makes sense in the data-for-service model that users give up their privacy in return for the service, but does this assumption hold when users are paying for physical goods and still required to agree to data collection? For example, laptops, tablets, phones, gaming consoles, and even cars cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. Yet, from Apple to Microsoft to HP to Sony to GM, all require users to agree to a EULA that enables data collection in order to use the device. Apparently users still trust those companies enough to agree. 

Things may be different with the Internet of Things. With smart, connected devices users are providing access to intimate events in their most private of places: their home. Smart thermostats know when residents are present; smart refrigerators know what foods are consumed in a home, and in what quantities; smart door locks and smart fire alarms can track the presence of household members in different rooms and so on. Will the vague EULAs that users need to agree to in order to use the connected and smart aspect of their devices deter use of these devices? Similar to the belief that Facebook can do anything with user data, will users be wary of connected devices that share their private habits with advertisers? Will this wariness be expressed in the slow adoption of smart devices or in some other way, such as hacks like third party apps that connect to devices instead of the “official” data-collecting app? Either of those might drive smart device makers to try and regain user trust by being transparent about what data is collected and how it’s being used. Yet it might take a significant slowdown of sales, such as in the fallout of the Volkswagen emissions deception, that results from the exposure of an embarrassing, unfriendly use of intimate user data, to drive real change.

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