Publisher’s Notebook: Debating the merits of Facebook

The number “540” now carries a special meaning for me. More on that later.

Color me skeptical as to how much Facebook will change its anti-consumer policies in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. My impression is that it will do only enough to pacify regulators, including those at the Federal Trade Commission, which has launched a probe of the social-media giant’s privacy policies.

The investigation, confirmed March 26, comes amidst a similar probe in the United Kingdom, after word that Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed data on 50 million Facebook users, all for the purpose of influencing elections.

As of midday, March 26, the crisis had wiped $80 billion from Facebook’s value, as the company’s stock plummeted 13.9 percent since the scandal broke March 16.

Facebook also has acknowledged that it for years has collected and stored call and text-message logs from some users of smartphones, which it characterizes as an “opt-in” feature. But I suspect that few of those smartphone users whose every call and text are cataloged realized that the company was doing so.

I fully expect that the company will tweak its practices, hoping that the furor dies down and that users will resume their old habits of sharing everything, without too much concern for what Facebook might be doing with their data.

As a Facebook user, I visit the site repeatedly every day. I’ve found it a good way to keep up with my large and extended family, as well as old friends from high school or the Marine Corps.

I’ve learned to ignore the daily onslaught of polls asking for my favorite albums, songs, TV shows, etc. I don’t respond to surveys about movies, books, my personality or what state I’m most-suited to live in.

Despite that care, I am constantly reminded of how difficult Facebook makes it to maintain privacy. One particularly annoying feature is its ad-targeting algorithm. Click on a link or an ad, or like any post, and Facebook will begin feeding you ads based on that perceived preference. It’s how the company builds a psychological profile of you, which it then shares with any number of third parties.

Admittedly, I haven’t paid too much attention to the ad preferences, other than going in once or twice a year to delete them. In fact, I did that just last week, via my iPhone, deleting dozens of preferences that had been forced upon me by Facebook as it works to target ads with as much specificity as possible.

Just for grins, a few minutes ago, as I was preparing this column, I checked whether what I’d done last week had stuck, when I deleted all ad preferences. What did I find? 129 “interests” in the “Business and Industry” tab, 128 under “News and Entertainment,” 54 under “Travel, Places and Events,” 51 under “People,” 41 under “Hobbies and Activities,” 17 under “Sports and Outdoors,” 17 under “Food and Drink,” 15 under “Education,” 10 under “Technology,” five under “Shopping and Fashion,” two under “Fitness and Wellness,” one under “Family and Relationships,” 37 under “Lifestyle and Culture” and 33 under “Other.”

Did all of these “interests” — yes, the total is the aforementioned 540 — suddenly materialize in the few days since I thought I cleaned them out on my iPhone, or did that privacy hygiene not take full effect?

I’m not certain, but the point is that a Facebook user should be able to permanently opt out of receiving targeted ads, rather than have to go through the onerous and impossible task of deleting interests each time one clicks on an ad, post, video or “like” button.

Maybe I’ll stick to “liking” articles about Facebook’s woes. Maybe then they’ll see that what I really “like” is privacy.

Christopher Wood can be reached at 303-630-1942, 970-232-3133 or cwood@bizwest.com.