This past Saturday, any of my Facebook friends who checked their News Feed on the site saw that I purchased a Cuisinart Coffee Maker on Overstock.com. That bit of information was delivered courtesy of Facebook's Social Ads program, which enables businesses to leverage the viral-networking capabilities of Facebook by reporting what users buy online.
The Social Ads system, at least as implemented by Overstock, is nominally "opt-in." When I checked out of the Overstock shopping cart, a small pop-up appeared at the bottom of the screen, asking for permission to send information about my purchase to Facebook; if I clicked the "no, don't send" button, then presumably my friends would not see the report of what I purchased.
I purposely didn't do anything, and the pop-up slowly slid back down off the screen. In turned out that doing nothing is the equivalent of saying "yes," which in practical terms makes the Social Ads an opt-out system.
The new advertising program is raising concerns among privacy advocates and some Facebook users. Greg Benedetto, a Facebook user in Canada, has founded the "Stand Up! Don't Let Facebook Invade Your Social Life with Ads!" group on Facebook, which currently has 337 members (out of Facebook's 53 million active users).
"This is by far the most unethical method of Web advertising I've come across," Benedetto wrote in the group's description. "I'll accept tailored advertising, but I will not accept my identity being used by companies to sell their products."
Privacy advocate Jeff Chester, the founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), offered a similar take. "Facebook is engaged in a bait-and-switch scheme," Chester said in a recent e-mail.
A year ago, the Center for Digital Democracy and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) filed a "Complaint and Request for Inquiry and Injunctive Relief Concerning Unfair and Deceptive Online Marketing Practices" with the Federal Trade Commission. According to a recent supplemental filing by the two groups, however, there has been little improvement in online privacy over the past year.
"On the contrary," the groups wrote, "another year of industry consolidation, coupled with continued advances in tracking and targeting technologies, has left Internet users even more vulnerable to the incursions of invasive online marketing."
Both USPIRG and the CDD are particularly concerned about the privacy implications of Facebook's Social Ads program and their potential impact on children. In a recent letter to FTC Chair Deborah Platt Majoras, Chester asked the FTC to consider the health implications of the social advertising program (because Facebook is allegedly working with soda manufacturer Coca-Cola, among others).
Chester also suggested that Facebook's new advertising scheme might violate provisions of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which regulates the collection of personal information from children under the age of 13.
There is no indication when or if the FTC will act on the CDD/USPIRG complaint.