The underground internet community is alive and buzzing following Facebook’s announcement this week, saying the social media giant would be allowing users to connect directly to its platform via anonymity network, Tor. From now on, this means users will be able to hide their location and identity, and visit the social network without the risk of their activity being tracked.
But while the world argues about whether this is a great development for freedom of speech in oppressed societies or a huge threat to national security and a goldmine for conspiracy theories, I can’t help but think that there’s a more self-serving reason behind this controversial move.
Data – it’s the internet’s currency, and for businesses like Facebook, being able to provide more insights into consumer behaviour than your competitors means more marketers and advertisers choosing to place their budget with them over a rival.
However, lately, ‘dark social’ – i.e. when people share content and links via private channels such as online chats and email that are difficult to measure – has stumped many media giants. We’re now in a situation where brands are getting traffic to obscure pages on their website (because who would type www.techopedia.com/definition/29027/dark-social into a search bar?), and don’t know how a person came across the address.
Those seemingly random click-throughs make up a huge percentage of visits to websites (recent estimates suggest that over two thirds of ‘social referrals’ come from dark social), but if marketers don’t know where a link came from, they can’t give credit where its due – and equally, social platforms can’t claim the victory.
So, in comes Facebook with Tor, opening its platform to users who previously may have taken their conversations elsewhere, disguising itself as a ‘dark social’ platform. The difference is, of course, that Facebook may well still be able to scan messages for keywords and links.
In other words, Facebook could potentially boost its own metrics by proving to brands that even more users – anonymous or not – are sharing their content on its platform, not to mention continue gathering data that it can use to target onioners with ads.
With requests by governments for user data, be that Facebook, Apple or Google, constantly on the rise and activist plights like the Hong Kong protests regularly making the front page, it’s likely that logging in via Tor will gain popularity. We may even see other media giants follow in Facebook’s footsteps. But I think it’s important that we remember that Silicon Valley rarely does ‘free’ – and if it scratches your back, it will expect the favour in return.