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When Do We Stop Promoting Facebook in Digital Development?

By Wayan Vota on January 31, 2019

Facebook ICT4D

Another day, and yet another data privacy failure at Facebook, which had over 21 major privacy scandals in 2018 alone. It was a big year, with Russian trolls, Cambridge Analytica, and multiple malicious profile data leaks.

Facebook Tracks You Even If You Don’t Use Facebook

Then Facebook ended the year with a Privacy International bombshell: Android apps were sharing user data with Facebook, even if you didn’t have a Facebook account.

We’ve known that Facebook routinely tracks users, but now its clear that it tracks both logged-out users and non-users outside its platform through the Facebook Software Development Kit that app developers used to build apps for the Android operating system. Facebook is tracking everyone’s device details, visited websites, purchases, viewed ads, and more – whether or not you have a Facebook account or are logged into Facebook

Worse, even though Facebook’s Cookies Policy describes two ways people who do not have a Facebook account can opt out of Facebook cookies, Privacy International found neither had any discernible impact on user data sharing.

Both of these actions are potential legal violations of GDPR, and are certainly ethical violations of user trust.

Of course, this third-party tracking isn’t limited to Facebook. Even more free apps on the Google Play Store share user data with Google’s parent company Alphabet. Proving yet again that if its free then your data is the product.

When Do We Stop Promoting Facebook?

With each new privacy failure, I go through another round of hand-wringing about using Facebook. Back in 2012, I wasn’t worried about Facebook privacy in general, but I did draw the line at companies conspiring to alter my Internet experience by sharing data across sectors – exactly what is now happening.

As a result, I cut down my Facebook usage in 2018, and with this new breach of trust, I feel like its time to reject Facebook completely in my private life. Time to go back to blogging again and (gasp!) off-line, real-life experiences.

Yet, is it possible to shut off Facebook in our digital development efforts? As Digital at DAI found, Facebook is still extremely popular with our constituents:

Facebook, in particular, is omnipresent. Almost everywhere we’ve performed research for Frontier Insights, we’ve found heavy Facebook usage, particularly among youth and particularly in urban areas where 3G and 4G data are more accessible. This pattern has held across Cambodia, Honduras, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh and just about everywhere else we’ve asked about it.

We All Know Why Facebook is Loved

As Steve Song commented, on Facebook, of course, Facebook and its many subsidiaries make it very easy for individuals, groups, organizations, and small businesses, to launch conversations and reach new constituents. That’s why many development organizations have Facebook chatbots, Facebook Groups, and a WhatsApp engagement strategy.

Could rejecting Facebook, even actively advocating against its usage, be the way forward? Or would outright rejection will do more harm than good?

If we stay, we certainly risk having our own Cambridge Analytica moment with Facebook.

Filed Under: Data, Featured
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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11 Comments to “When Do We Stop Promoting Facebook in Digital Development?”

  1. Chris Locke says:

    Personally? Left FB about 4-5 years ago, and haven’t recommended it to clients for that long. As a firm, we published excellent research by Amba Kak on why FB Zero wasn’t working in our DFID access report back in 2016, and wrote about the lack of a sustainable business model underpinning FB’s dominance of the internet in emerging markets back in 2017:

  2. Miles Sedgwick says:

    The title of this article assumes we should agree on Facebook’s bad practices in online privacy, and that we would want to stop promoting Facebook in ICT projects. While I agree Facebook (and Google, Amazon, etc.) can be invasive and do not respect our privacy, I am of the strong opinion that life without these tools, in particular in developing countries, would be worse.

    I am writing this from Uganda. In this country, the government has imposed a social media tax to all of its citizens. If you use a local mobile device, you must pay a tax of 6,000 Ugandan Shillings or approximately $1.60 per month in order to use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Skype and other services. Many people here agree this is a way to silence the poorest people on social media to avoid political discourse as the ruling party is concerned about pivotal elections in 2021. Whatever their reasons, I want everyone to have the choice to have free access to Facebook and let them decide to use it or not based on how they feel about the privacy concerns you raise.

    My question would be: is it really our role to influence peoples’ opinions on Facebook? If they overwhelming majority of developing world countries still want to use it, and have free access to do so, they should continue to. I don’t want to impose my views on others just as I don’t want the government to dictate what sites I can visit either.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Yes, I do think one of our key roles is to influence peoples’ opinions on using Facebook, or any other technology. At the minimum, we should help them make an informed choice. This isn’t imposing our views on others, but sharing our concerns so they can make up their own minds.

      Is the loss of their privacy worth the benefits? Right now, they (and to an extent, we) don’t know how much data we’re giving away when we use FB and the like. Especially in countries where free speech is threatened and governments crack down on dissent, we should be hyper-aware of what data companies have and whom they share it with.

  3. Barbara Zalduondo says:

    I too am concerned about Facebook (and others) covertly using people’s personal information. (Under the heading of “covert” use I include smiling distribution of privacy controls that are too complicated to understand and act upon).

    What about shifting from Facebook and WhatsApp to Telegram? I understand that, because it is based in the EU, Telegram is subject to the much more protective EU privacy laws, which are much stricter, and end-user friendly, than US laws.

    An in-depth, expert review of Telegram on ICTworks could help!

    • Wayan Vota says:

      We’ve looked at secure comms before that included Telegram, but we don’t have a deep dive on that tool. Would you be interested in doing a review of Telegram for ICTworks? Sounds like you have a good understanding of it already.

      • Barbara says:

        Hi Wayan –
        I am a user and advocate for
        ICT4D but not at all knowledgeable about the back end. My main concern with Telegram so far is getting my people to switch to it from WhatsApp. I have so few contacts on Telegram that I can’t do a meaningful comparison, even of the front end/user perspective. If/when I get more traction with it I will be glad to contribute a review. But I was hoping that a deep dive from tech experts like ICTworks will help me “sell” Telegram to get usage up.
        Hope that helps clarify.
        – Barbara

        • Wayan Vota says:

          What about a post on the difficulty to get people to switch off things like WhatsApp to more secure services like Telegram? I think that in itself would resonate, as I too have been asked to move to Telegram, but I don’t. Maybe something on why you think people should move, your efforts to do so, and a call for help to find better ways for adoption?

  4. Victor van R says:

    You raise a very good point that has also been on my mind for some time. Personally, I also have drastically cut down on Facebook usage, but I feel that I lose out on information, especially about what is happening in civil society in Africa.

    I still promote Facebook to my partners in Africa just because of the non-existence of a free press in so many of the countries that I work in. Governments controlling the media and mis-informing their citizens. Facebook allows people to go beyond these restrictions and repression.

    I did, however, change my approach. I warn my partners more and more about the dangers of Facebook as well as all the other Big Tech. The insatiable hunger for data and information, the inability to control fake news, and the lack of an ethical position to strive for a better world.

    I think Facebook can still be an important tool in development but needs to be handled with care.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      This is where I think we need to go – informed choice. However, I still think its a pretty weak choice. Either give up all your personal data to connect with others, or go back to analog networking practices.

  5. Sean says:

    Some might argue that this is a conversation that should have been had before people started suggesting using Facebook.

    But why just Facebook – what kind of corporate governance and/or contractual guarantees underpin your sense of safety with the other COTS applications we deploy in vulnerable contexts?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Great point! Its not just FB. Like I pointed out in the post, Google tracks people even more than FB on Android phones. And for those of us in the USA, our Internet Service Providers can (and probably do) snoop on our network traffic and sell the data to advertisers.

      I personally like how people want Amazon to stop selling Rekognition facial recognition software to governments, but seemingly don’t have an issue with it being used by private sector actions. As if one can trust a tech company beholden to VCs and shareholders more than a government beholden to its citizens and voters.