Privacy Coalition Urges FTC To Block Facebook's Behavioral-Advertising Plan

A coalition of privacy advocates wants regulators to block Facebook from broadening its online behavioral advertising program.

The TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue argues that Facebook's new initiative marks a departure from its prior statements eschewing broad online behavioral advertising.

“We urge you to act immediately to notify the company that it must suspend its proposed change in business practices to determine whether it complies with current U.S. and EU law,” the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue says in a letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission and Ireland's Office of the Data Protection Commissioner.

“Facebook has now completely reversed its stance to the detriment of users,” the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue argues. “Contrary to its prior representations, upon which users may have relied, the company will now routinely monitor the Web browsing activities of its users and exploit that information for advertising purposes.”

A Facebook spokesperson said on Tuesday that the company exceeds industry standards in terms of giving users control over advertising. “Anyone can opt out of advertising based on the Web sites they visit and apps they use, and we offer ad preferences, a way for people to add and remove interest categories to improve the ads they see on Facebook,” the spokesperson said.

The privacy coalition's letter comes in response to Facebook's announcement last month that it will allow advertisers to target users based on their activity throughout the Web. In the past, Facebook allowed advertisers to use “retargeting” -- a less sweeping form of behavioral advertising. Retargeting involves showing ads to people after they've visited an ecommerce site, but doesn't generally involve profiling users based on their activity across many sites.

When Facebook announced its new policy, the company also told users they can visit a site run by the trade group Digital Advertising Alliance to opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads. Facebook also says it will offer a tool to let users control the types of products and services that will be advertised to them.

But the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue notes in its letter that companies will still collect data about users who use the DAA's opt-out mechanism. The watchdog -- which counts the Center for Digital Democracy, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Public Knowledge and others among its members -- says that Facebook's statements about opting out are misleading given that doing so won't prevent companies from gathering data.

“Users cannot control the data collection that results in targeted advertising; users can only control how much targeted advertising they must look at,” the organization argues.

The TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue contends that Facebook is violating a 2012 FTC consent decree that imposes a host of obligations on the company, including the obligation to avoid misleading users about privacy issues.

“Facebook’s data collection practices involve a closely woven relationship among Facebook, its advertising partners, data-broker companies, and various marketing applications services,” the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue writes. “The extent of this complex network of data collection practices is not immediately obvious to consumers; in fact, users must click through several different parts of the Facebook website to discover the existence of many of Facebook’s data partners.”

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