VIDEO: Awkward! Facebook VP stumped by BBC question

Filed Under: Facebook, Privacy, Social networks, Video

Emily Maitlis interviews Facebook's Elliot SchrageElliot Schrage, Facebook's VP Public Policy, was struck dumb by BBC reporter Emily Maitlis when she quizzed him about the ethics of "Sponsored Stories" on Facebook in a television documentary shown this weekend in the UK.

News reporter Maitlis raised the issue of Facebook's ethics - if you click "Like" on a company or product page on Facebook (26 million people have done so for Starbucks, for example) then your name and photograph could unwittingly appear in online adverts for those products for all your friends to see.

Unfortunately, Facebook provides no way to opt out of appearing in these "adverts".

Facebook Help Center says you can not opt out of appearing in sponsored stories

It made for some uncomfortable viewing as Schrage struggled to explain the company's position. You can watch an edited version of the segment in the video below.

(Enjoy this video? Check out more on the SophosLabs YouTube channel and subscribe if you like.)

Emily Maitlis, BBC: If I press a "Like" button on a brand that could pop up as a Sponsored Story. I might not know about it, I certainly wouldn't necessarily agree to it..

Elliot Schrage, Facebook: But when you press a "Like" button on a brand, or an ad or on a page you're saying "I like this".

Maitlis: But I'm not saying "I advertise this!"

Schrage: Well, it.. I suppose when you.. so let's pause.

[awkward pause]

It's an interesting..

[fx: tumbleweed]

Schrage: You're asking a profound question. What's advertising? When I press a "Like" button on an ad, I'm trying on the Facebook system, I am affirmatively communicating that I am associating myself with whatever I'm liking. And what that does is, it creates a story.

Maitlis: Well you can call it a story, many people would call it an advertisement, and Facebook is getting paid for those by the companies.

Schrage: Isn't it a.. I I think it's a.. it's a ranking mechanism. I don't know if I would call it an advertisement.

Depending on where you live in the world, you may be able to view "Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook" via BBC iPlayer.

Elliot SchrageThe hour long BBC documentary was certainly an entertaining look at Facebook, its origins and impact on the world, and was - in the most part - supportive of the social network.

Media coverage of the programme has tended to centre on Schrage's discomfort, and - in the case of one newspaper - Emily Maitlis's clothes.

Sadly, the much vaunted interview with Mark Zuckerberg himself was short and rather bland (he does, by the way, believe Sponsored Stories to be adverts) and Zuck was most notable for his absence from many sections ("this is where Mark sits, when he's here", "this is the house Mark used to live in").

If you're on Facebook, you should consider joining Sophos's Facebook page, where over 150,000 people regularly share information on threats and discuss the latest security news. It will help you keep up-to-date on the latest privacy issues, scams and malware attacks. And yes, we get the irony..

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30 Responses to VIDEO: Awkward! Facebook VP stumped by BBC question

  1. Jeremy · 1403 days ago

    ...and what salary is he on exactly?

  2. Simon Tedeschi · 1403 days ago

    This is a no brainer. You can opt out of being used in sponsored stories, as soon as they let it be known that they could use your face in advertising to your friends this option was there. Why did the beeb not think to triple check before making this an issue? Also, why does the VP not know the product enough to turn arond and say "yes you can opt out you fool".

    • Guest · 1403 days ago

      True, but, I'd rather opt in than opt out.

    • Thanks for the comment Simon.

      Check out this link from Facebook's Help Center

      "there is no way to opt out of seeing all or being featured in any Sponsored Stories" (Facebook's own words)

      I agree that Facebook has made it very hard for folks to understand this.

      • Simon Tedeschi · 1402 days ago

        Thats very strange then, as the text on the screen opting out of sponsored stories states that they wont use your image. Maybe the help centre is a disclaimer in case the matrix fails? I hope so. I dont mind seeing the sponsored stories myself, they are just screen fodder to me (in fact I only mentally make a note of the companies that have paid to use the sponsored stories feature - 'Scottish Widows' take note)

        As for Guest's comment - I also agree with you. But where the defenders argue Facebook is a business etc, I think this is the real trade off; having to opt out if you disagree.

        • The "Opt Out" is for using your image, IIRC. There is NO opt-out for using your FB handle/name. So you can still be associated with the "story" -- they've just allowed you to prevent them from sticking your FB images on the billboard for the story, since that blew up shortly after the feature was released.

          • If someone has an issue with the way Facebook operates then why join Facebook?

            • Mark · 1387 days ago

              People join Facebook and complain because they might like 99% of it but hate 1% and would rather try to help improve it.

              Also, what's wrong with simply campaigning for what you think is right (privacy rights)? Often staying and speaking up is more effective than walking away but saying nothing.

  3. Guest · 1403 days ago

    Neat story. Pretty much the reason I don't hit the like button except on a friends status, perhaps, and I go and delete it later. Here's one for you though. When listing activities, or interests, a url is assigned to it. I then get advertisements (that I do not want). Why can't we simply list what we like and don't like minus the urls. The url addition wasn't always there and anyone could be running that page. I mean anyone. Who is running the "chess" url? I didn't subscribe, but, it pops up because I like to play chess. What info does that chess page have access to regarding me? Certainly I can see others who also have chess listed as a game or interest, but, I never "liked" the page and I don't want it. Unliking the page REMOVES the interest from your profile. So, I can't tell people what I like with out subscribing to a feed I don't want. Stupid, and likely a information problem as well. Plus, the security of such sites is not on my top list. Seems rather easy to slip a malicious link in those feeds.......

    • Simon Tedeschi · 1402 days ago

      Excellent point. I unlike quite a few pages that do nothing other than self-promote offers and such, when I would rather just show friends who make the effort to look at my profile that I like the company/product/person.

    • Spike Page · 1402 days ago

      I have that same concern. For that reason I am very hesitant to like more popular music or movies just because such pages glut my news feed with promotions and comments from fans that are, for the most part, telling me something I would likely already know. But at the same time, there are less popular interests that I like for which the URL is actually a welcomed source of information.

      As for sponsored stories, I have no real problem with having something I post appear on one of the sites I follow (most of which I follow to get coupons or discounts). Now, why in hell any ad exec would want to use my visage or quotes as promotional material is totally beyond me. I suppose advertising is not the precision craft it was once touted to be.

      Here's the part where I don my sandwich board that says EAT AT JOE'S.

    • Mark · 1402 days ago

      There are often several versions of a page/topic so if you don't want to get your news feed spammed or clogged with posts make sure you like the right one - either the official page for the product/company, or the Facebook auto-generated one.

      For example, there are pages for chess started by another Facebook member (e.g. and pages automatically generated by Facebook which usually consists of a Wikipedia article (e.g. The latter won't spam your news feed but will just show up as an interest and like on your wall/profile.

      I always make sure to check the type of page first and make sure the latter is the one I "like" unless, of course, it is a well-known organisation/business that I want to receive updates from. In many cases there are official and unofficial pages made by other members and you should check to make sure you are liking the official one to ensure you don't get spammed.

  4. PollytheWasp · 1403 days ago

    Facebook is a social networking site, paid for by advertising. If you don't want people to know something about you, don't write it on Fac ebook. If you don't want to be associated with a product, don't click on it. It seems very simple to me. Of course the owners are going to come up with ways to profit: that's what they're in it for, that's why they developed it. 95% of the moans about it, it seems to me, are from people that don't understand what social networking is, or have a problem with other people making money.

    • Guest · 1403 days ago

      I agree.

      The sillier part is that it is governed by your privacy settings, so, if you didn't want someone to see you "liked" something you could go to your wall and hide the action.

      Besides I might like to know my buddy "liked" product x. Even though it is sort-of an endorsement. But he chose to willingly endorse it so, I don't see the problem.

      Not a significant privacy concern in my book.

      These are the featured stories that appear in the upper right only for feeds you have subscribed to and have given you permission to view their feed. Thus, you wanted your friends to know you "liked" product x and only your friends should be able to see it (based on your privacy settings).

      I mean if you don't want to be part of the Sponsored Stories don't post and don't like stuff. It's there to show you participation from your friends (which you already have access to btw, you can simply go to their wall).

  5. Aniel · 1402 days ago

    Just go to
    and select "Pair my social actions with ads for -No one-"

    Problem FIXED

    • I'm not so sure.

      Read what it says on that page: "independent of this setting, you may still see social actions in other contexts, like in Sponsored Stories or paired with messages from Facebook."

      My reading of that is that the option you're pointing to doesn't affect Sponsored Stories. And Facebook's own help center says there is no way to opt out of Sponsored Stories.

      • I'm with you on this one. They're fairly clear that Sponsored Stories are exempt from opting out of this "feature".

  6. ClaireC · 1402 days ago

    I'm not sure if this is related or not, but it bothers me that, on many sites, when I want to comment on an article, it demands my facebook login. If I give it, it then asks for permission to access my FB information, and even to post as me. No way am I going to agree to that. Some sites and forums allow alternative logins, but others don't. So sometimes I end up not commenting on something I really want to comment on.
    Here, I see I have a choice of using "intensedebate", "wordpress", or "twitter" logins, or making a comment as "guest". Facebook is not an option. I would be interested in an article that explains why Sophos doesn't use the FB login, and what ramifications there may be in using the others. Right now, I avoid them all if possible, but many websites no longer allow you to comment without using one of the login channels.

  7. Herzco · 1402 days ago

    So many people suggesting that users of facebook (aka: everyone in the known universe) should simply "not use Facebook if they don't like how Facebook does business". This is a ridiculous line of thinking, analogous to blaming an assault victim for the assault because of the revealing nature of her wardrobe.

    Liking something is just that, and it should not be the same as advertising it.

    • In order for your analogy to hold true, the assault victim would also have to have intentionally gone somewhere where it was widely known that wearing that style of clothing would result in assault. In both cases, it doesn't make it right, but it IS still opt-in (you can prevent it by avoiding the site).

      Now, if they were both cases of misleading advertising (the victim had strong reason to believe that things were otherwise -- for example, a friend urging victim to visit a trendy club and forgetting to mention the high chance of assault), this would be a different issue. Are there people who don't realize that giving your information to companies who make money via advertising will likely result in your information being broadcast? Maybe THIS is something Facebook needs to stress during the sign-up process.

  8. LesleyG · 1402 days ago

    You can opt out of this type of ad aka sponsored story as I did, by adjusting your settings on this page:

  9. Carolina Lady · 1402 days ago

    I got rid of all ads by using Ad Blocker Plus. I never see them. And I'm extremely careful what I click on. I don't think it is anybody's business what I do or don't do. Facebook sees it as making everything as public as possible - to make their money. IMO they have it wrong. If companies want to advertise on any medium, they have to pay for it. Taking the personal information of people to use in that advertising is just wrong. There is a huge difference in making money and greed.

    • Evil Emperor · 1402 days ago

      You nailed it on the AdBlockPlus.

      AdBlockPlus + Firefox = NINJA :D

  10. ultimately end users have more power, tech companies must realize this without us they don't make huge $$$$.

  11. cas · 1401 days ago

    Get AdBlock. Works like a charm.

  12. What about having adblock on your end prevents YOUR image from being exploited by third-parties in advertisements AIMED at your facebook 'friends'?

  13. Serge · 1396 days ago

    If I choose like for Sophos on Facebook, does this mean that I am make advertisement for Sophos!?

  14. Kent · 1395 days ago

    Ironic insight that to the left of this article, there is a FB "like" button. ;)
    Just sayin'.

  15. A. McMillan · 1392 days ago

    I don't really have a problem with the "sponsored stories," "adverts" or whatever they're called. Anyone who has been on Facebook for more than a day knows that when you click "like" you are making that fact public to whomever is in your immediate or extended network.

    If you don't want people to know you like it, then don't click "like." It's very simple, and not terribly different from less technology-driven things in life. If I don't want you to know that I like a certain band, for instance, I'm not going to wear the t-shirt out in public, or put the bumper sticker on my car.

    But if I do those things, then I, myself, have become an ad for them. And since I do like them enough to be their human advert, why would I have a problem if they benefit from it? Is it far-fetched to assume I want them to stay around and am favorable toward putting in a good word for them, so to speak? In my view, this applies to a band, a cause or group, anything from strongly held beliefs to casual interests.

    Anyway, Facebook is supposed to be about sharing and connecting. So why are people complaining about things being shared? Who joins Facebook to keep secrets? The whole idea is to see what your friends--the friends you chose--are into and up to, so that you can join them and discuss it with them.

    It seems to me that questions like those raised in this interview just create an "issue" where there is none. After all, we are talking about the internet--a public place. If you don't want it made known, then don't make it known. My information = my responsibility.

    (Sorry, I didn't mean to be long winded!)

  16. anthony · 1368 days ago

    Read your terms of service for the contract you agree to. Facebook is not only a social network but a datamining center for advertising. You consent up front that anything you post to facebook you agree to give facebook full usage rights. Everything any picture comment , like or anything. If you don't agree with the service don't use it. Facebook isn't about privacy your posting your ego to the world. It's about $ which makes the world go round. If you want privacy don't join or post your information online.

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog at, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Follow him on Twitter at @gcluley