Mark Zuckerberg & Co. stood up in front of the advertising community in New York today and unveiled Facebook Ads, an ad system that allows companies to use the Facebook social graph and to develop highly targeted ads. Large brands such as Coca-Cola (KO), Sony Pictures […]

Mark Zuckerberg & Co. stood up in front of the advertising community in New York today and unveiled Facebook Ads, an ad system that allows companies to use the Facebook social graph and to develop highly targeted ads. Large brands such as Coca-Cola (KO), Sony Pictures (SNE) and Verizon (VZ) have signed on for this effort. Part of the engine powering this new ad system is called Beacon, which takes data from 44 web destinations and mashes it up with Facebook’s internal information to help build more focused advertising messages.

While it seems to be a clever idea, a quick review reveals that Beacon might turn out to be a privacy hairball for the company.

The 44 sites that have partnered with Facebook include everyone from Kongregate, LiveJournal, NYTimes (NYT), Sony Online, Blockbuster (BBI), Bluefly.com, STA Travel, The Knot, TripAdvisor, Travel Ticker, TypePad, viagogo, Vox, Yelp, WeddingChannel.com and Zappos.com.

These partner sites put a little a piece of Facebook javascript on their web site and certain information, cleverly (and innocuously) labeled as a user alert, is sent to Facebook. For instance, Fandago users can publish information about the movies they saw. It all seems like a clever idea because it lets Facebook triangulate your likes and dislikes even more, and deliver more focused ads.

Facebook Beacon provides advanced privacy controls so Facebook users can decide whether to distribute specific actions from participating sites with their friends.

Reading that line prompted the following questions, which I put to Facebook:

1. Can consumers opt out of this?
2. If yes, does their data get erased?
3. Will the sites for example, Fandango, stop sending all personal and any kind of information to Facebook once the user opts out?
4. Why didn’t they make this an opt-in feature, instead of being an opt-out feature?

Their PR spokesperson emailed me this response:

Users can opt-out of Beacon on a per-site basis. They can opt-out for each action, or they can opt-out to never have an affiliated site send stories to Facebook. For instance, a user that buys The Notebook from Blockbuster can stop a story from being published about it, or she can opt-out of having Blockbuster publish any actions she takes on the Blockbuster site.

The response doesn’t seem to answer my questions and basically makes it seem like users have control over this data, when in reality, this is a privacy disaster waiting to happen. The javascript on the Fandango site pops up a little screen which asks if you want to publish the information on Facebook. If you say no, your friends won’t see the information, but apparently Facebook still receives it. This means that if you are a Facebook member, Facebook will know what you are doing on each of their partner sites. And there is no way for you to opt out of that. Or is there? I asked Facebook to clarify and I am still waiting for them to write back.

As for the rest of their announcement, while long and elaborate, it doesn’t contain any information we haven’t already seen. MySpace (NWS) has been doing brand specific-pages for a while now, in addition to using other targeting techniques.

  1. i agree. total transparency and total user control is a must.

  2. Your breakdown clearly shows the privacy problem and as a FB user I am most likely going to avoid going to the partner sites altogether rather than sit down and opt out of each.

    I am sure there are lots of people who don’t want their purchases or web visits revealed to anyone. The “Share” feature on FB allows me to share what I want already and gives me complete control, I will never hand over that control.

    I would much have preferred to see that the ad platform was only focused on the branded pages plus even better demographic targeting than offered by Facebook Flyers Pro.

  3. We will be happy to show you a better way! amhirsch2006@yahoo.com

  4. Hmm, I dont understand this. How does Fandango know your facebook identity?

  5. do you honestly think they designed an access control matrix for fifty million users across dozens of sites? no way.

    users won’t care at first until someone accidentally broadcasts to their social graph that they have been buying sex toys, viagra, or something else cheeky. then when it all stars leaking, the “WTF?!?!?!” phase will start and fb will throw out some patches to scan out “questionable” referrals, etc.

    in the end something will have to replace cookies. in the current model, users are forced to trust the black box they can’t look inside…even fb can’t look inside it for any particular user because there is just too much data.

  6. Sachin Balagopalan Tuesday, November 6, 2007

    and who says I want to endorse Coke…


  7. The truly amazing thing about FB is how much personal data users enter. (and I mean tech-savvy, sophisticated people). Age, gender, marital status, religion, location, etc. What are they thinking? FB will redefine the art of identity-theft, phishing, and the like. For the bads guys, this is a beautiful place.

    And regarding the so-called targeted ads (really socially engineered ads) Except for searching, I’d rather these types of passive ads be less targeted so when I buy stuff, I at least have a sense that I bought it for other than manipulated reasons. There’s enough of that pressure now.

  8. Just Opt-out from Facebook itself.

  9. facebook IS a privacy nightmare, but its a choice..

    better use of time to give your sites videos an instant makeover.. found video skins templates to is perfect for the task..


  10. This is a major problem. it’s the quick money. Facebook could become the 21st century rolodex, its clean, “trustworthy”, organized and… easy.

    However, “trustworthy comes into question here, BIG TIME. To the point really where there is no grey area, Facebook is largely fed to the sharks for a flounder foray.

    That’s right, Om has got it down and that’s that.

    Facebook won’t be worth 1/15 of what people say it is when some does the same EXACT thing without this breach of privacy. And that’s what it is… when you sign up, the doted line doesn’t QUITE explain your susceptibility, perhaps deep in print, but there should really be a skull & cross bones like a smoking signal if you think giving out your identity is hazardous to your health.

    Just my 2 cents.



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