What Facebook Knows ⚓

The MIT Technology review has an amazing piece on Facebook’s Data Science Team: America’s top sociologists, big data software designers and analysts dealing with what is probably the largest database ever built on and by people. I really, really invite you to read the whole article. Otherwise, here’s a (too large) selection of extracts:

For one example of how Facebook can serve as a proxy for examining society at large, consider a recent study of the notion that any person on the globe is just six degrees of separation from any other. The best-known real-world study, in 1967, involved a few hundred people trying to send postcards to a particular Boston stockholder. Facebook’s version, conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Milan, involved the entire social network as of May 2011, which amounted to more than 10 percent of the world’s population. Analyzing the 69 billion friend connections among those 721 million people showed that the world is smaller than we thought: four intermediary friends are usually enough to introduce anyone to a random stranger. « When considering another person in the world, a friend of your friend knows a friend of their friend, on average, » the technical paper pithily concluded. That result may not extend to everyone on the planet, but there’s good reason to believe that it and other findings from the Data Science Team are true to life outside Facebook. Last year the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 93 percent of Facebook friends had met in person. One of Marlow’s researchers has developed a way to calculate a country’s « gross national happiness » from its Facebook activity by logging the occurrence of words and phrases that signal positive or negative emotion. Gross national happiness fluctuates in a way that suggests the measure is accurate: it jumps during holidays and dips when popular public figures die. After a major earthquake in Chile in February 2010, the country’s score plummeted and took many months to return to normal. That event seemed to make the country as a whole more sympathetic when Japan suffered its own big earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011; while Chile’s gross national happiness dipped, the figure didn’t waver in any other countries tracked (Japan wasn’t among them). Adam Kramer, who created the index, says he intended it to show that Facebook’s data could provide cheap and accurate ways to track social trends—methods that could be useful to economists and other researchers.

Other work published by the group has more obvious utility for Facebook’s basic strategy, which involves encouraging us to make the site central to our lives and then using what it learns to sell ads. An early study looked at what types of updates from friends encourage newcomers to the network to add their own contributions. Right before Valentine’s Day this year a blog post from the Data Science Team listed the songs most popular with people who had recently signaled on Facebook that they had entered or left a relationship. It was a hint of the type of correlation that could help Facebook make useful predictions about users’ behavior—knowledge that could help it make better guesses about which ads you might be more or less open to at any given time. Perhaps people who have just left a relationship might be interested in an album of ballads, or perhaps no company should associate its brand with the flood of emotion attending the death of a friend. The most valuable online ads today are those displayed alongside certain Web searches, because the searchers are expressing precisely what they want. This is one reason why Google’s revenue is 10 times Facebook’s. But Facebook might eventually be able to guess what people want or don’t want even before they realize it.

Recently the Data Science Team has begun to use its unique position to experiment with the way Facebook works, tweaking the site—the way scientists might prod an ant’s nest—to see how users react. Eytan Bakshy, who joined Facebook last year after collaborating with Marlow as a PhD student at the University of Michigan, wanted to learn whether our actions on Facebook are mainly influenced by those of our close friends, who are likely to have similar tastes. That would shed light on the theory that our Facebook friends create an « echo chamber » that amplifies news and opinions we have already heard about. So he messed with how Facebook operated for a quarter of a billion users. Over a seven-week period, the 76 million links that those users shared with each other were logged. Then, on 219 million randomly chosen occasions, Facebook prevented someone from seeing a link shared by a friend. Hiding links this way created a control group so that Bakshy could assess how often people end up promoting the same links because they have similar information sources and interests.

He found that our close friends strongly sway which information we share, but overall their impact is dwarfed by the collective influence of numerous more distant contacts—what sociologists call « weak ties. » It is our diverse collection of weak ties that most powerfully determines what information we’re exposed to.

Read the article

Marlow says his team wants to divine the rules of online social life to understand what’s going on inside Facebook, not to develop ways to manipulate it. « Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society, » he says. « Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want. » But some of his team’s work and the attitudes of Facebook’s leaders show that the company is not above using its platform to tweak users’ behavior. Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people.

In April, influenced in part by conversations over dinner with his med-student girlfriend (now his wife), Zuckerberg decided that he should use social influence within Facebook to increase organ donor registrations. Users were given an opportunity to click a box on their Timeline pages to signal that they were registered donors, which triggered a notification to their friends. The new feature started a cascade of social pressure, and organ donor enrollment increased by a factor of 23 across 44 states.

Read the article

Facebook updates the Terms of Service. But we’re watching them. (2/2)

Two weeks ago I started to revamp the ToS;DR project. We aim at creating readable and rated version of terms of service (ToS), so that the next time you sign up, you won’t lie about being aware of the terms. Ignorance keeps you docile, we hope that by giving you full awareness of what you sign up for, we can pressure services and get some fairness in the terms.

So, to follow on the last post, Facebook ditched their Privacy Policy for a Data Use Policy. It’s mostly the same things, but this very long document has undergone some changes. Fortunately, we at Unhosted kept a copy of the previous version.

Without too many comments, here are some changes that caught my attention (what’s striked has been deleted from the previous version and what’s highlighted has been added to it.)

Your information

This is a modification we can spot here and there: in addition to “clicking”, “viewing or otherwise interacting with things” is enough to send data about you or about other people to Facebook. Connect that with the “Social Plugins” (aka the Like button) and you get a pretty good idea of what’s happening as soon as you see them appearing: you’re sending data about you, what you read, even if you haven’t asked for anything.

We receive data about you whenever you interact with Facebook, such as when you look at another person’s timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things, use a Facebook mobile app, or purchase Facebook Credits or make other purchases through Facebook.

This one is fun. It looks like in the last version, someone forgot to mention the cookies here!

We receive data whenever you visit a game, application, or website that uses Facebook Platform or visit a site with a Facebook feature (such as a social plugin), sometimes through cookies. This may include the date and time you visit the site; the web address, or URL, you’re on; technical information about the IP address, browser and the operating system you use; and, if you are logged in to Facebook, your User ID.

We get here to an important fact of Facebook: it sells our data, all combined, without personally identifying information such as username or user ID. But it would be interesting to really be able to inspect these data… Is it really impossible to identify anyone personally? Or is it identifiable enough?

We only provide data to our advertising partners or customers after we have removed your name or any other personally identifying information from it, or have combined it with other people’s data in a way that it is no longer associated with you. Similarly, when we receive data about you from our advertising partners or customers, we keep the data for 180 days. After that, we combine the data with other people’s data in a way that it is no longer associated with you.

This one is a welcome addition:

Of course, for information others share about you, they control how it is shared.
We store data for as long as it is necessary to provide products and services to you and others, including those described above. Typically, information associated with your account will be kept until your account is deleted. For certain categories of data, we may also tell you about specific data retention practices.

Sharing information

If you do not make a selection, your information will be shared with the last audience you selected. If you want to change your selection later you can do that too on your profile.

I don’t really get this one:

Although you choose with whom you share, there may be ways for others to determine information about you. For example, if you hide your birthday so no one can see it on your timeline, but friends post “happy birthday!” on your timeline, people may determine your birthday.

“As a general rule, you should assume that if you do not see a sharing icon, the information will be publicly available.” Yes. Public is default.

People on Facebook may be able to see mutual friends, even if they cannot see your entire list of friends.
Some things (like your name, profile pictures and cover photos) do not have sharing icons because they are always publicly available. As a general rule, you should assume that if you do not see a sharing icon, the information will be publicly available.

That might be a useful feature to have a bit of control over what’s displayed. How is the implementation?

Your activity log is a place where you can go to view most of your information on Facebook, including things you’ve hidden from your timeline. You can use this log to manage your content. For example, you can do things like delete stories, change the audience of your stories or stop an application from publishing to your timeline on your behalf.
When you hide something from your timeline, you are not deleting it. This means that the story may be visible elsewhere, like in your friends’ News Feed. If you want to delete a story you posted, choose the delete option

Other applications

Applications also get your age range, locale, and gender when you and your friends visit them. Age range (e.g., 18-21) lets applications provide you with age-appropriate content. Locale (e.g., en-US) lets applications know what language you speak. Gender lets applications refer to you correctly. If you do not want applications to receive this information about you, you can turn off all Facebook applications

When you first visit an app, Facebook lets the app know your language, your country, and whether you are under 18, between 18-20, or 21 and over. Age range lets apps provide you with age-appropriate content. If you install the app, it can access, store and update the information you’ve shared. Apps you’ve installed can update their records of your basic info, age range, language and country. If you haven’t used an app in a while, it won’t be able to continue to update the additional information you’ve given them permission to access. Learn more at: (…)

You always can remove apps you’ve installed by using your app settings at: But remember, apps may still be able to access your information when the people you share with use them. And, if you’ve removed an application and want them to delete the information you’ve already shared with them, you should contact the application and ask them to delete it. Visit the application’s page on Facebook or their own website to learn more about the app.

Sometimes plugins act just like applications. You can spot one of these plugins because it will ask you for permission to access your information or to publish information back to Facebook. For example, if you use a registration plugin on a website, the plugin will ask your permission to share your basic info with the website to make it easier for you to register for the website. Similarly, if you use an Add To Timeline plugin, the plugin will ask your permission to publish stories about your activities on that website to Facebook.

If you post something using a social plugin and you do not see a sharing icon, you should assume that story is Public. For example, if you post a comment through a Facebook comment plugin on a site, your story is Public and everyone, including the website, can see your story.


Personalized ads

We do not share any of your information with advertisers (unless, of course, you give us permission). As described in this policy, we may share your information when we have removed from it anything that personally identifies you or combined it with other information so that it no longer personally identifies you.
We use the information we receive to deliver ads and to make them more relevant to you. This includes all of the things you share and do on Facebook, such as the Pages you like or key words from your stories, and the things we infer from your use of Facebook. Learn more at:
When an advertiser creates an ad,
they are given the opportunity to choose their audience by location, demographics, likes, keywords, and any other information we receive or can tell about you and other users. For example, an advertiser can choose to target 18 to 35 year-old women who live in the United States and like basketball. An advertiser could also choose to target certain topics or keywords, like “music” or even people who like a particular song or artist.

Ads are tracking you even if you don’t click them.

if a person clicks on the add

if a person views or otherwise interacts with the ad

and now an example of how very incredibly useful Facebook is for humanity:

Advertisers of sci-fi movies, for example, could ask us to target “sci-fi fans” and we would target that group, which may include you. Or if you “like” Pages that are car-related and mention a particular car brand in a post, we might put you in the “potential car buyer” category and let a car brand target to that group, which would include you


Note that the access requests to your data are basically gone. If you’ve ever tried to “download a copy of your Facebook data” like I did, then you know how ridiculous this is.

Access Requests

We provide initial responses to access requests within a reasonable period of time, typically within thirty days. You can also download a copy of everything you’ve put into Facebook using our download your information tool.

You can access and correct most of your personal data stored by Facebook by logging into your account and viewing your timeline and activity log. You can also download a copy of your personal data by visiting your “Account Settings”, clicking on “Download a copy of your Facebook data” and then clicking on the link for your expanded archive. Learn more at:

So in the end, no really fancy changes AFAICS.

For the official review of changes, see Facebook’s governance website.


I express my gratitude for Moresounds‘ music which helped me get through this boring task. Fortunately, this will soon be automated when the EFF’s TosBack is restarted.

Facebook updates the Terms of Service. But we’re watching them. (1)

You may have seen it, Facebook is updating its terms of service — you know, that document no one reads but everyone agrees to when they sign up to services online.

For over a year, Facebook has had a practice to allow 7,000 Facebook users to solicit a public vote over a proposed change in the terms. That is undeniably a good policy, unlike Twitter’s we can change the terms at any time and we will notify you if we decide so with a simple tweet from @Twitter or an email.

By the way, for those who don’t remember, Twitter has substantially changed their terms of service in 2009, adopting a radically different approach to your copyright. Whereas before Twitter claimed no copyright license and encouraged users to publish their tweets under a free copyright license like Creative Commons or Public Domain, they now state: “you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).”

But, enough about Twitter. Let’s go back to Facebook. The company, certainly with the IPO operation and some other contextual elements, decided to update their Terms of Service. According to these terms at the time, when Facebook makes a proposal for change:

If more than 7,000 users comment on the proposed change, we will also give you the opportunity to participate in a vote in which you will be provided alternatives.

So that’s what happened in April 2012. People from the Europe v. Facebook campaign launched a platform to encourage people to comment. And that worked, so Facebook organised a vote. An overwhelming majority of the users who participated voted against the changes. However, as the terms stated:

The vote shall be binding on us if more than 30% of all active registered users as of the date of the notice vote.

Needless to say, taking into account the fact that the vote was very poorly advertised outside and inside Facebook, this ratio of 30% of the active users (for a total of users around 900 million!) does not represent a big risk for Facebook.

So anyway, Facebook published their new Terms. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours browsing through their pages, I was unable to find a document referencing the changes. Fortunately, I was watching them for a while already when I started taking over the ToS;DR project (Terms of Service; Didn’t Read). More on that project later ;)

In a nutshell, the new Statement of Rights and Responsibilities remains pretty much the same. They reflect better the way Facebook deals with data and information from people who are not Facebook users (which demonstrates how much Facebook can track everyone online). Some interesting bits:

If more than 7,000 users post a substantive comment on a particular proposed change,

What’s emphasized has been added. So it looks like it will be more difficult to solicit a public vote.

Facebook offers social reporting tools to enable users to provide feedback about tagging.

So a new feature that might be useful. I have no idea what it relates to however, since I don’t have a Facebook account any more.

You will not use our copyrights or trademarks (including Facebook, the Facebook and F Logos, FB, Face, Poke, Book and Wall), or any confusingly similar marks, except as expressly permitted by our Brand Usage Guidelines or with our prior written permission.

Yeah, that’s right, you’ve read well. Facebook now claims trademarks on the words “Face,” “Book,” and “Wall.”

One last point, the new terms have systematically replaced “Privacy Policy” with “Data Use Policy.” Things could not be more clear ;)

[Next step: I should have a look at the changes from the Privacy Policy to the Data Use Policy. Lots of interesting changes I hope.]