Facebook Says Advertising Is Not the Driver Behind Privacy Changes

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-30

Facebook March 29 said advertising is not the motivation behind proposed changes to its privacy policy that would let trusted third-party Websites access users' Facebook data without prior consent.  

Currently, people who use applications that connect to Facebook from Facebook Connect can find and interact with their friends. These connections require basic information about users, such as name and gender.

In the proposed privacy policy, Facebook said it may share general information about users, including friends and their friends' names, profile pictures, gender, connections and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting.

These features would be automatically activated, and users would be able to opt out of having their info shared with Facebook's partner Websites. As part of their contract with Facebook, partners must then delete user data they received if a user opted out.

Facebook invited its 400 million-plus users to leave feedback through 12:00 a.m. PDT on April 3. Through 9 a.m. EDT March 30, most of the 1,000-plus comments Facebook users left after the social network's blog post on the changes showed that users are upset that Facebook wants to make the service opt-out instead of opt-in.

eWEEK asked Facebook if the company planned to adjust its privacy policy given the angry reception. Facebook spokesperson Barry Schnitt noted that the company is looking very closely at this feedback from the blog post and on the documents, but doesn't have any product changes to announce.

"One thing we are doing is giving more detail. For example, we've made sure to confirm that this has nothing to do with advertising. Honestly, when we were developing the policy and the materials for the announcement, that idea didn't occur to us. People have now asked and we're happy to explain that nothing could be further from the truth."

Why would advertising play into it? The intersection of ads with user privacy is a hot-button issue because of Facebook's past folly.

Facebook makes its money from digital ads shown to users of its Website. In November 2007, the company launched an ill-fated advertising program called Beacon that displayed information about users to their friends.

Users didn't like this, and the company just settled in court over the issue earlier this month, agreeing to pay $9.5 million to users to resolve a class-action lawsuit.  

Facebook has grown significantly since that time, and it has become more imperative for the company to make money from ads served to users in a social context. Thanks to Beacon, any perceived hedge on users' privacy rights is viewed with suspicion. This is why Schnitt made a point to argue that ads weren't a consideration for the proposed privacy changes.

Schnitt raised another point. He noted that as of March 29, the blog post on the proposed changes drew more than 4 million page views, with only 1/100s of a percent of viewers leaving feedback, with more than 2,000 clicking the "like" button. His suggestion is that users approved the changes.

It is possible many users like Facebook's plans, but it also possible users were simply clicking the "like" button to show their support for those who flamed Facebook for its proposed changes in comments. It is easier, after all, to click a button than write an insightful comment, or even a vulgar diatribe.

Meanwhile, in the interest of full disclosure, Facebook is doing its best job ever to notify users of its plans.

Schnitt said it has sent updates to almost all user in-boxes and run more than 50 million impressions of ads, notifying people of the changes and encouraging them to leave feedback on the Facebook Site Governance page

There are more than 1,000 comments as of this writing, many in different languages. One reader, Garret Tumey, wrote: "OMG for the love of G please add a dislike button."  

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