Foxglove Senior Fellow Tanya O’Carroll sues Facebook for collecting personal data to sell adverts
For over a decade, existing online with basic services like email, or connecting with friends and family, has meant also resigning ourselves to being spied on by big tech companies.
Take Facebook. Facebook is the public square for a third of the planet. In many parts of the world, it essentially *is* the internet.
Yet to access its services Facebook forces us to give up every detail about ourselves and accept being tracked, constantly, across the web.
We think that’s wrong. No-one should have to surrender their privacy and let Mark Zuckerberg rifle through their intimate personal data just to stay in touch with friends and family.
It’s also against the law. We’re proud to announce that Foxglove senior fellow Tanya O’Carroll is bringing a case under UK data protection law to put up her hand and say: enough. You can read her talking about the case in The Times here and listen to her speaking to the BBC about the case by clicking the video below.
Facebook tracks and profiles what we do and where we click to construct detailed digital dossiers to target us with personalised ads.
If these were just normal adverts, we wouldn’t be here. Your radio doesn’t spy on you surfing between Taylor Swift songs and nor do page ads in Cosmo or GQ or roadside billboards tell you what’s on at the Odeon next week.
But these are not normal ads – they’re surveillance ads, and running an advertising model this way has created a host of new problems, like a car spewing out toxic exhaust.
Facebook’s ad business relies on profiling. Tanya has calculated Facebook has 700 different categories it uses to track her.
Some of those categories are very sensitive. Facebook has historically tracked your racial background, the gender you identify with, your sexual preferences, political leanings and whether or not you have children. Facebook claims to have leant away from some of these – but lots of other areas can be a proxy for these areas.
Advertisers use these categories to decide who to target – or who to avoid. It is a trivial task to tailor Facebook ads in a way that discriminates. For example:
- Government investigators in the US have found advertisers repeatedly using racist targeting categories to exclude non-white people from adverts for housing.
- Journalists have revealed how, in 2020, the Trump campaign targeted 3.5 million black voters with Facebook ads to try and stop them voting in the presidential election.
- Studies have shown that women in the UK don’t get shown Facebook ads for things like engineering jobs. It’s simple to design your job ad to favour men and exclude women or older people.
How does the case work?
It’s pretty simple. UK data protection law already gives everyone the right to tell Facebook, or companies like it, to stop profiling them for ads. Under the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) which the UK adopted in 2018, this is called the “right to object”.
So, the problem is in getting Facebook to respect that objection. That’s where Tanya’s case comes in.
If she succeeds, it could create a precedent where if any one of us objects to Facebook creepily tracking us across the internet and tells them to stop, Facebook has to stop. Period.
Facebook doesn’t want to give up its spying, of course. So they have already hired very expensive lawyers to say the law doesn’t apply to them and could endanger their business model.
But if data protection laws don’t apply to the biggest and most powerful data-brokers in the world – social media companies – then who on Earth do they apply to?
And the idea that Facebook needs to use surveillance ads to make a profit is, frankly, for the birds.
Facebook has 3.5 billion users. Zuckerberg will still have billions of people to flog ads to – he just won’t be allowed to spy on us anymore.