The change to Facebook's policy, reported last week on Tech Goes Strong, lets it provide information on users' interests and habits to advertisers unless they take the time to opt out. New York Senator Chuck has asked the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit Facebook and other sites from sharing information about users without their permission.
According to Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post,
Last week, changes at Facebook made data from its users available to third parties unless a user opted out, the lawmakers said. That means, they said, the default for most users is for private information to be available to advertisers and other third parties.
"Social networking sites are a Wild West of the Internet; users need ability to control private information and fully understand how it's being used," the lawmakers wrote in a news release. They will hold a news conference at noon Tuesday and release a letter they will send to Facebook asking for changes to the site's privacy policies.
Facebook knows a lot about its users, because we tell it. The folks we become friends with, the pages we become fans of, the events we attend all paint a fuller picture of our interests and attitudes. So, Facebook gives advertisers the ability to show ads to someone who, for example, has a dog, likes nightlife and lives in a metro area. It's called ad targeting, and it's a fact of life on the Internet.
All reputable websites disclose what information they gather and how they use it. But few people actually read all that legalese.
One big issue is opt in versus opt out. Regulators want web publishers and marketers to ask people to opt in to receive marketing messages. But publishers know that most people won't take the trouble to opt out of cookies, profiling or targeted advertising, so this method gives them a much bigger pool of people to sell to advertisers.
The opt-out battle was fought and won by the email marketing industry. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 let them email people without getting permission; but they do have clear requirements for letting people easily opt out of receiving any more messages. There's no such legislation for web publishers.
The latest changes, called "instant personalization," automatically share Facebook user info with three other companies: Microsoft, Yelp and Pandora. According to Wendy Davis of Mediapost,
A Facebook spokesperson adds that the company has "added new and easy controls" to help users opt out.
Clearly, however, Facebook doesn't want people to do so. Consider, Facebook has made the maddening decision to require users to opt out four separate times. First, users must visit their Facebook settings and uncheck the allow-personalization box. Next, users who want to prevent the sharing of their information by friends, must visit another section of Facebook's settings and block Microsoft Docs, Pandora and Yelp separately.
One special Facebook wrinkle is those ubiquitous quizzes. These are little pieces of software created by other companies — and they often have a marketing component. We find them fun and addictive; this makes them a great tool for marketers. And, it seems like a fair exchange. I have fun for three minutes in return for seeing a brand or an ad.
A lot of us shrug off the privacy issue. Isn't Facebook all about sharing your information anyway? Isn't privacy so 2009? But here's the rub. Because of the way Facebook interweaves your own information with that of your friends,' — which is what makes it cool — when a friend decides to share information, he may be sharing yours as well. Especially in a quiz, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
According to NPR, Facebook executives responded that, while it's technically feasible to write a quiz that exposed personal information in this way, it's against the company's rules — and the company would shut it down. Certainly, it's in Facebook's best interest, as well as ours, that it not allow applications that don't play fair.
If you're already a Facebook user, take the ACLU's quiz to see what they could find out about you, your family and your friends. Then, decide: Should the FTC step in, or should the government leave it to you — and your 13-year-old — to decide?