Did you hear about the latest scandal in which Facebook staffers called children “whales,” and discussed the merits of “friendly fraud”?
Probably not … because who can keep track of all the Facebook scandals? In 2018 alone we learned that:
• 50 million profiles were “harvested” to influence an election
• Facebook and some 60 tech manufacturers secretly exchanged user data
• A big-time hack hit 30 million accounts
• The Pikini app stole (and published) teeny bikini photos
• 6.8 million users’ photos — even those marked private — were exposed by a bug
• Netflix and other companies perused your private messages
And there’s more! You can read the list of all 21 scandals on Wired if you really want to flip out.
But back to the whales and the friendly fraud.
Why is this case so important? Because unsealed documents from a class-action lawsuit show that Facebook deliberately and persistently sought to swindle minors. (My favorite was the internal memo titled “Friendly Fraud – what it is, why it’s challenging, and why you shouldn’t try to block it.”)
According to The Center for Investigative Reporting,
“Facebook orchestrated a multiyear effort that duped children and their parents out of money — in some cases hundreds or even thousands of dollars — and then often refused to give the money back.”
“The mechanism was simple and lucrative,” wrote Roger Dooley in Forbes. “Many free games offered ‘in-app purchases’ — things like weapon upgrades, extra lives, or character costumes. When a small initial purchase was made, often with parental consent, the app maker retained the card information. From that point on, additional spending was as simple as clicking an icon to get an upgrade. Many games didn’t make it clear that real money was being spent.”
According to the court documents, the average Angry Birds player was only five years old — and one teen ran up more than $6,500 in gaming costs. But to the dismay of many parents, Facebook refused to refund the money, instead offering “digital rewards such as ‘flaming swords or extra lives’.”
None of the articles I read disclosed the settlement’s terms, except for the usual press-release mumbo-jumbo (“… we routinely examine our own practices, and in 2016 agreed to update our terms and provide dedicated resources for refund requests related to purchases made by minors on Facebook”).
One final shock
Although I’d been distressed by the campaign influence and hacking scandals, this latest misstep was the last straw for me. Yesterday I went nuclear and permanently deleted my Facebook account.
And here’s where I got my final shock: Facebook had provided my “personal information” to literally thousands of companies and individuals. (Facebook says it doesn’t sell users’ information, but that smacks of semantic tap-dancing.)
And what does this “personal information” entail? Is it just my email address? A list of my friends? Favorite movies, places I’ve visited, private messages? I don’t know.
What I do know is that in spite of promising that it’s “free and always will be,” Facebook is exacting a very real cost for many who use the platform, whether in money or in privacy. Each of us must decide whether we’re willing to pay the price.