Why Facebook is Creepier than Google

The search engine collects more information about us than the social media company, but somehow we resent Facebook more.

By Brad Berens

A February 18 article in the Wall Street Journal by Suzanne Vranica, Patience Haggin, and Salvador Rodriguez—Inside Facebook’s $10 Billion Breakup With Advertisers—shows that when it comes to restraining Facebook from tracking us the real power doesn’t lie with the U.S. Federal Government, which is still spinning its wheels on any regulation of Big Tech. (Congressional gridlock makes this even harder.)

The power doesn’t lie with big advertisers. During the 2020 big ad boycott. Facebook yawned and watched its stock go up because it doesn’t make its money from Unilever and Capital One: it makes its money from small businesses.

The power to neutralize Facebook lies with Apple, which cost Facebook an estimated $10B when it deployed the “Ask App Not to Track” option in its mobile IOS software. This move made advertising on Facebook less effective and more expensive. From the WSJ article:

“Lots of other companies that depend on e-commerce sales, including makers of nutritional powders, eyebrow stencils and toilet sprays, are taking a look at their bottom lines and deciding the same thing. They are slashing their spending on Facebook and Instagram and sending their ad money to Google, Amazon.com Inc., Snap Inc. and other platforms, according to ad buyers and e-commerce companies.”

Google will make the same cross-app tracking optional on its Android platform, albeit not for two or more years. This delay is a very Googly slow-walk. Unlike Apple, which made its decision unilaterally, Google is working with the digital advertising biz to soften the blow of reducing its data collection. Most of Google’s revenues come from advertising, whereas only some of Apple’s does.

Let’s be clear: both Apple and Google benefit from these changes. Apple has made big investments in services (news and magazines, music, video) that create the walled garden data precious to advertisers. When you click the little “ask app not to track” option on your iPhone, that prevents Facebook and others from tracking your behavior across different apps. It doesn’t stop Apple. Tim Cook is enjoying the rare experience of doing the right thing (protecting privacy) and also benefiting from doing so with a stronger ad product.

Likewise, Google’s fast-follower decision with Android about app tracking—as well as its always-next-year promised elimination of third-party cookie tracking from its dominant Chrome browser— only makes its own advertising ecosystem stronger.

Here’s the weird thing: why is it that Facebook gets a worse rap that Google when it comes to harvesting our data to make its ad business more effective? Google collects more data about us more of the time across more aspects of our lives. Even if you spend an unhealthy amount time on Facebook and Instagram and Messenger and WhatsApp, what my friend Renny Gleeson calls “the data contrail” that comes off your use of these services is a spit in Google’s ocean.

Google tracks everything you search for, everything you watch on YouTube, everything you send and receive on Gmail, all the docs and spreadsheets and slides on GDrive, all the calls you make with Google Voice, and also all of the websites you visit directly if they use DoubleClick to serve ads, which most of them do. And it’s even more extensive than that. Here are four sentences from Shoshana Zuboff’s 29-page testimony in front of the Canadian government about what she calls “surveillance capitalism” (which is also the title of her magisterial doorstop of a book); she’s talking specifically about Google:

Economies of action were further developed at Google, where Street View chief John Hanke’s internal skunk works, Niantic Labs, developed the augmented reality game Pokémon Go. The real game, it turns out, was learning how to herd innocent players to eat, drink, and purchase in the restaurants, bars, fast food joints, and shops that paid to play in the game’s behavioral futures markets. Niantic Labs sold guarantees of footfall rates, the precise real-world analogy to clickthrough rates in the online milieu. These same herding capabilities are now integrated into WAZE, a real-life Google application intended to help users navigate traffic that now offers its businesses customers opportunities to leverage the shadow text in order to herd drivers to their service establishments.

Somehow we think Facebook is creepy, but give Google a pass.

Yes, Alphabet (Google) CEO Sundar Pichai is often sitting near Meta (Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg when Congress semi-regularly yells at Big Tech without doing anything to change it, but think about how often people complain about Facebook but not Google. For one small example, I recently retweeted a thread by an entrepreneur about how depending on Facebook cost him his $100M business. A friend of mine commented “Nothing good comes from FB.”

I have a theory.

Google tells us what we want to know, what we ask to know. Amazon shows us what we want to buy, what we shop for and purchase. In both cases, we are sending signals out to the world. “Tell me this, Google!” “Help me buy this, Amazon!”

In contrast, Facebook eavesdrops on what we say to our friends, and then puts ads in front of us based on those conversations.

It helps to think about analog versions of these interactions. If I ask a friend what she knows about Albania and she tells me, then I probably won’t be upset if later she says, “hey, I learned something new about Albania. Want me to share it?” That’s Google. If I walk up to somebody wearing a badge in a department store and ask where I can find notebooks, and she answers my question, then I probably won’t be upset if later she says, “hey, did you find the notebooks you wanted? Because I have some other notebooks over here.” That’s Amazon.

The Facebook version is this: I’m at a party, talking with a couple of friends. Some more friends come over. The conversation ranges. The original pair of friends wander off. Soon I wander off. I strike up a conversation with somebody new. We become friends. It’s a good night. I go home. Later, I learn that the entire time I was socializing a nerdy guy who doesn’t blink very much (you know who I mean) was quietly following me around, listening, and taking notes. Now he’s using that information to sell ads that he will then stick in front of me on my way to the next party.

Pretty creepy, right?

Google and Amazon harvest signals that we know we’re sending out to the world. Facebook harvest signals that we are sending to our friends. It’s easy to forget that the nerdy guy is eavesdropping.

I’m not saying that Facebook is bad and Google is good. I’m saying that Google is more effective than Facebook at painlessly separating us from our data and making us grateful for it. That may be why Google’s market cap (at the moment I write this) is $1.7 trillion while Facebook’s is $590 billion.

We need to pay attention to just how much information all Big Tech companies are compiling on us, and we need to remember that they never, ever forget anything we read, write, say, hear, see or share.

If that last paragraph troubles you and you don’t know what to do next, then you can start by following FTC Chair Lina Khan and Tim Wu, Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy. Both are Columbia Law professors currently serving in the Biden Administration.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow, and principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. Learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com.



See all columns from the Center.

March 3, 2022