Zuckerberg: It's Not About the Ads!

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today rejected the assumption that the social networking company wants to make user data more public because it serves its advertising business. “There’s a big misperception that we’re making these changes for advertising,” he said on a media call laying out refreshed privacy settings. “Anyone who knows me knows that that’s crazy.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

“We are working on building an ad business,” Zuckerberg said, “but when we are working on building products, this factors in not at all. It’s such a big disconnect.” And more than being just a matter of philosophy, Zuckerberg said, the Facebook system does not pass personally identifiable information to advertisers. “The principles of the system are we don’t give any info to advertisers. We target all the ads ourselves.”

He contended that when Facebook does share user information, it’s for the unselfish purposes of data portability, to enable other developers, including competitors, to target ads.

As for whether advertising is the reason Facebook has in the past moved some default setting to make user information more public, Zuckerberg said, “The only reason we recommend the settings we do is we think they’re the best settings.”

Zuckerberg’s defiant attitude on ads was markedly different from the rest of his presentation about better privacy controls. On privacy, he said he and his team agreed with user and media feedback. But on advertising, he said he finds articles and blogs about the topic upsetting and uninformed.

Still, this is going to be a tough battle of perception, especially as Facebook becomes integrated into more and more of the Internet, beyond “the little website we have today,” as Zuckerberg called it. While I might be inclined to believe Facebook’s management team when they say they put product first, many people are skeptical and cynical about the company, and Zuckerberg in particular.

Even what seem to be minor and quickly corrected slip-ups, like exposing user data to other sites through referring URLs, are major at the scale of almost 500 million users. And the fact is that Facebook’s monetization engine is at its most powerful when it understands user intent, something that’s increasingly precise and real-time due to the company’s work across the web. Meanwhile, advertisers are hungry for data, and brands that participate on Facebook are eager to find out more about their users.

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