What information do Facebook advertisers know about me?

Facebook app permissions

This is the question Facebook poses and (sort-of-but-not-really) answers in the latest addition to its Hard Questions series. It's the social network's latest attempt to claw back some respect and trust from its users in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, and it sees the company insisting that "you are not the product".

Whether this is believed or not is neither here nor there. That the company is now having to go to such extraordinary lengths to appear transparent, to try to prove that nothing untoward is going on, is simply indicative of the massive level of suspicion leveled at Facebook.

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Throughout, the post -- penned by Rob Goldman, vice president of ads at Facebook -- stresses the importance of ads to Facebook. "Advertising lets us keep Facebook free" and "you can't opt out of ads altogether because ads are what keep Facebook free," we're told.

Facebook has faced a great deal of privacy-related criticism of late, but of this the company says:

To build a product that connects people across continents and cultures, we need to make sure everyone can afford it. Advertising lets us keep Facebook free. But we aren't blind to the challenges this model poses. It requires a steadfast commitment to privacy.

So our promise is this: we do not tell advertisers who you are or sell your information to anyone. That has always been true. We think relevant advertising and privacy aren't in conflict, and we're committed to doing both well.

The post goes on to talk about how Facebook gathers information about its users, and utilizes this data to deliver carefully targeted ads. It does the same with Facebook-connected apps and websites. Facebook also shares the fact that it gathers information from advertisers themselves:

Information that an advertiser shares with us. In this case, advertisers bring us the customer information so they can reach those people on Facebook. These advertisers might have your email address from a purchase you made, or from some other data source. We find Facebook accounts that match that data, but we don’t tell the advertiser who matched. In ad preferences you can see which advertisers with your contact information are currently running campaigns -- and you can click the top right corner of any ad to hide all ads from that business.

Just as Facebook pointed the finger at other technology companies when people complained that it was tracking non-users, so it does the same when it tries to defend itself:

If I'm not paying for Facebook, am I the product?

No. Our product is social media -- the ability to connect with the people that matter to you, wherever they are in the world. It’s the same with a free search engine, website or newspaper. The core product is reading the news or finding information -- and the ads exist to fund that experience.

The post then goes on to answer further questions Facebook says "we hear most frequently":

If I’m not paying for Facebook, am I the product?

No. Our product is social media -- the ability to connect with the people that matter to you, wherever they are in the world. It's the same with a free search engine, website or newspaper. The core product is reading the news or finding information -- and the ads exist to fund that experience.

If you're not selling advertisers my data, what are you giving them?

We sell advertisers space on Facebook -- much like TV or radio or newspapers do. We don’t sell your information. When an advertiser runs a campaign on Facebook, we share reports about the performance of their ad campaign. We could, for example, tell an advertiser that more men than women responded to their ad, and that most people clicked on the ad from their phone.

Why does Facebook need all this data?

As people use Facebook, they share information and content -- whether it's liking a post, sharing a photo or updating their profile. We use this information to give you a better service. For example, we can show you photos from your closest friends at the top of your News Feed, or show you articles about issues that matter most to you, or suggest groups that you might want to join.

Data also helps us show you better and more relevant ads. And it lets advertisers reach the right people, including millions of small businesses and non-profits who rely on Facebook every day to reach people that might be interested in their product or cause. Data lets a local coffee shop survive and grow amid larger competitors by showing ads to customers in its area. And it lets a non-profit promote a diabetes fundraiser to those interested in the cause.

What if I don't want my data used to show me ads?

You can't opt out of ads altogether because ads are what keep Facebook free, but you do have different options to control how your data can and can’t be used to show you ads. They're all found in ad preferences.

You can decide which of your profile fields you want used for ad targeting in the Information section under "About You." You can remove yourself from interests under "Interests" and categories under "Your Categories." You can turn off ads that use data from apps or websites that you visit in the Ads Settings section under "Ads based on use of websites and apps."

Facebook is going to continue to face accusations, suspicion and scrutiny, and the company seems to be operating under the misapprehension that it can fend this off by repeating the same stock answers again and again. In reality, this approach is unlikely to cut it with many people.

Check out the post in full in the Facebook newsroom.

Image credit: Monster Ztudio / Shutterstock

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