Facebook's New Behavioral Targeting Program Draws Lawmaker's Ire

Facebook's decision to expand its behavioral targeting program has already drawn a rebuke from one lawmaker, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who says the move “raises a major privacy red flag” for teens.

“It doesn’t matter where teen users are online, Facebook will create detailed digital dossiers without their permission based on what they click,” Markey says in a statement. “Now more than ever, we need to put rules on the books to ensure teens are protected from being tracked.”

Markey, along with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), recently introduced legislation that would prohibit companies from using behavioral targeting techniques to advertise to teens under 16 without their consent. That proposal was backed by a coalition including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Communication Workers of America, Consumer Watchdog and Consumers Union.

It's worth noting that Facebook has been engaged in various forms of personalized advertising for many years, and even in behavioral targeting, for years. Most notably, the social networking service already allows retailers to “retarget” people by showing them ads after they've visited an ecommerce site.

The new program will broaden the behavioral targeting on the service by allowing marketers to serve ads to people based on their activity across a broad variety of sites. The idea is that people's Web-surfing history will clue marketers in to the types of products people would consider buying.

Unlike some prior Facebook programs, like Beacon (which broadcast news of users' ecommerce purchases to their friends), this current plan doesn't differ from many other sites' practices. Still, Facebook will always be under extra scrutiny -- partly because of its history, but partly because it has a huge trove of extremely personal data about its users. It's fair to say that very few online companies not only know the names of their users, but also what they look like, who their friends are, where they went to school, when they got married, where they work, the movies they like, the restaurants they frequent, and the like.

As for the potential privacy issues, Facebook says it intends to make information available to users about why they're receiving particular ads. Android and iPhone users can opt out of all behavioral advertising through controls on their devices.

But desktop and laptop users who want to opt out will have to do so via a site operated by the self-regulatory group Digital Advertising Alliance. That's because the social networking service says it doesn't intend to honor the do-not-track settings that desktop users can send through their browsers. Most Web companies ignore those signals, and even some of the ones that used to honor them -- like Yahoo -- now disregard them.

Some of those decisions by Facebook are already raising eyebrows. The privacy group Center for Digital Democracy says that Facebook's explanations to users will probably be “sanitized.”

“The new program is unlikely to explain how Facebook works with outside marketers and data brokers to create its targeting system,” the CDD says in a blog post. “Facebook knows that few users will opt-out if they see what appears to be innocuous information about them (such as we know you like pets, when it's really about a much more detailed gathering and use of their data, including financial information). The explanation users will receive about why they are receing a particular ad will be purposefully sanitized.”

Tags: facebook, privacy
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1 comment about "Facebook's New Behavioral Targeting Program Draws Lawmaker's Ire".
  1. Steve Bryen from Ziklag Systems LLC , June 12, 2014 at 7:36 p.m.
    Senator Markey is right in understanding that tracking teenagers is wrong and dangerous. Likewise he is right about the need to protect privacy. The monetization of privacy is a huge, growing problem in our society.