Facebook is now selling your Web-browsing data to advertisers

by Chris Moran, Consumerist

fb square_ccYou know how it’s really creepy when you go looking for a new TV online and then go to Facebook and the ad spaces that you typically ignore are now populated with advertising for the very brands of TV you just checked out? Until now, they’ve been the product of third-party ad networks and creepy data aggregators like Acxiom while Facebook itself had kept its hands clean by not selling the data it had acquired about your Web browsing habits. But in an effort to bring you even creepier, more targeted ads, Facebook will now be making more info about you available to advertisers.

“When we ask people about our ads, one of the top things they tell us is that they want to see ads that are more relevant to their interests,” reads an actual sentence presumably written by a human being at Facebook and not some automated copy-bot intended to mimic human speech.

Unless we’ve completely misjudged the entire human race, we doubt the first thing that pops into most folks’ heads when asked about Facebook advertising is “Please make the ads eerily specific to things that I was just browsing online!”

More likely the real top response to questions about Facebook ads is “For the love of god, please give me a way to block them and not have them track my every movement.”

“Starting soon in the US, we will also include information from some of the websites and apps you use,” continues the Facebook statement, which we hear in the voice of the HAL 9000, or maybe the woman who narrates House Hunters on HGTV. “This is a type of interest-based advertising, and many companies already do this.”

Facebook has long been following you around the Web, quietly snickering at you for the music you buy and silently cocking an eyebrow for thinking you can still fit into the same size jeans you wore in college. But until now, it had tracked users under the pretense of security. This morning’s announcement shows the site’s true intentions.

The company is making a big deal of users’ ability to opt out.

“If you don’t want us to use the websites and apps you use to show you more relevant ads, we won’t,” explains Facebook. “You can opt out of this type of ad targeting in your web browser using the industry-standard Digital Advertising Alliance opt out, and on your mobile devices using the controls that iOS and Android provide.”

However, the Alliance opt out doesn’t always work and is only specific to the browser you’re using when you make the opt-out requests. So if you go to Facebook using different computers, you’d need to go through the opt-out procedure on each computer you use. And clearing that browser’s cookies could reset your preferences, allowing you to be tracked all over again.

Additionally, while you may be able to opt out of having Facebook track you, some of the networks that place targeted ads on Facebook require separate steps to opt out.

For example, a quick check of my own Facebook page turned up creepy, targeted ads based on recent browsing I’d done. These ads were all served up by a company called AdRoll, which is listed on the Alliance opt-out interface, but for which the opt-out failed. The only way to turn these ads off was to go to a completely separate opt-out form linked on the AdRoll site, and even then I continued to receive targeted ads from AdRoll.

I just want Facebook and others who take part in targeted advertising to admit that it has nothing to do with providing users with something they want. No one comes to Facebook for the ads, no matter how well-tailored they are to a user’s interest.

Targeted ads are about being able to charge a premium to advertisers who want to know exactly who they’re reaching. Unfortunately, in order to do so, Facebook has to compromise the privacy of its hundreds of millions of users.

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