Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Everybody sing: It knows when you’ve been naughty…

No, we aren’t talking about Santa here. We are talking about Facebook. The business model for Facebook and just about every other social networking site is the same. Entice users to provide a wealth of personal data, and use that data to better target ads. That is a perfectly legitimate business model. However, Facebook users need to be aware that everything they do on the site will in a sense, be used against them in the battle to entice them to buy something. Adult users probably get that. We as parents need to make sure our our kids understand too.

Facebook has now upped the ante though. The new advertising program they have rolled out, called Beacon, not only tracks you on Facebook, but across the web. Many privacy advocates feel that a line is being crossed with this new service. Not only does Facebook know what you do on its site, it knows what movie tickets you bought, or what you purchased at an online retailer. Even worse to some, this information is injected into your user news feed, just like anything you do on the site. So your friends and contacts on Facebook, along with seeing a note that you updated your profile picture, may also see a note that you just purchased Preparation H at on online drugstore, along with ad for hemorrhoid ointments. Not only is the privacy issue problematic, the implied endorsed of the ad is a concern too.

(Note - the hemorrhoid thing is a hypothetical example. I have no idea if any online drugstore is part of the Beacon program today, or if they would publish specific product info. But they could.)

Obviously, not using Facebook is an option. However, it’s not an option many kids will take. Facebook has an astounding 85% of US college students using the site, frequently multiple times per day. Facebook claims that it provides ways to opt out of Beacon. And they do. However, you have to opt out of each information transaction as it occurs. There is no way to opt out across the board. They are receiving quite a backlash from this, so it’s possible that the system may become more respectful of user privacy.

What do we do as parents? Be aware. Banning Facebook use probably isn’t going to work. If your teens are on Facebook, make sure they understand the privacy implications of anything they put on the site. Make sure that their privacy controls are set such that their profile info in limited to “friends” only. Make sure they understand that Facebook collects everything they do on site, and wants to collect what they do off-site.

Better targeting advertising is not a bad idea. I think we’d all be happier if we were only subjected to advertising that was relevant to us personally. How the advertisers do that while balancing privacy issues will be a major challenge for Facebook and the countless other services that have similar ideas.


written for Parental Tech by COD