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November 15, 2007, 03:39 PM ET

Facebook's 'Social Ads' Raise Privacy Concerns

It’s too early to tell whether college students will be turned off by — or, indeed, whether they’ll even notice — Facebook’s new targeted-advertising scheme. But privacy advocates and some other observers are already raising red flags, and as David Weinberger argues at The Huffington Post, they may have reason to be concerned.

The key piece of Facebook’s plan is the social network’s new means of communicating with other businesses’ Web sites: When a user rents a movie online from Blockbuster, for example, the video store’s site will relay that information back to Facebook, which will ask the customer whether he or she wants to share news of the rental with friends. That process gives Facebook a lot of information that will pique the interest of advertisers, and the social network has a plan for that data, of course. Facebook will let companies like Blockbuster buy ads that target certain demographics — say, college-age males who rent horror movies — but the site will not identify individual users to those companies.

So far, so good, says Mr. Weinberger: “That is the informational view of privacy, and Facebook is likely to continue to get that right.” But there are aspects of Facebook’s scheme that leave him uneasy. For example, the social network allows users to see which outside sites have passed their information back to Facebook, and it then lets people choose, one by one, to prohibit those sites from doing it again. But Facebook never offers users a “big red button” that will let them opt out of the data-sharing system altogether. “We should be allowed to Just Say No, once and for all,” argues Mr. Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“Why? Because privacy is not just about information,” he writes. “It’s all about the defaults.” A couple traipsing down a public sidewalk makes the default assumption that no one will be recording their conversation and posting it online. Why, he asks, should a Facebook user surfing the Web have to feel any different?

(For more thoughts on Facebook’s new advertising strategy, check out Info/Law, where William McGeveran, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, argues that Facebook might be running afoul of privacy laws.) —Brock Read

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