Facebook’s big blue hand is reaching out to scoop up more of your data for monetization. The dossier giant has rivaled Beyonce in spreading itself around the world, except it exhorts websites and apps to “put a Facebook button on it” instead of a ring. It has steadily colonized the Web and app-o-sphere with “Like buttons,” “conversion pixels,” and Facebook log-in options, which all feed information back to Facebook about what its users are up to when they’re not on Facebook. Now Facebook is planning to start using some of that data flow to pepper its users with targeted ads. Facebook announced this week that it is going to start tracking the websites Facebook users visit and their activity on smartphone apps in order to target them with “better” ads. Of particular interest to me in the media coverage around the robust, new tracktastic ads, is seeing Facebook walk back previous promises not to do exactly what it’s about to do.
The best technical description of how Facebook is doing the tracking is over at AdAge. On smartphones, any apps that use Facebook log-in or have Facebook “Likes” in their apps will send information back to Facebook for advertising purposes. If the Open Table app, for example, has a Facebook log-in, and you are looking at Mexican restaurants all the time, you’ll start seeing ads for chips and salsa on Facebook. When it comes to desktop surfing, Facebook is using “conversion pixels” to track users. This is a bit of code that companies that are advertising on Facebook can throw onto their websites to track whether their Facebook ads are working. So if Beyonce were advertising her latest album on Facebook, she could throw that code onto her site, which then tells Facebook which users have visited Beyonce.com, and then Facebook can check its own records to see how many of the users who visited Beyonce.com actually saw her album ad on Facebook, and then relay that back to Beyonce. It’s a brilliant coup by Facebook. In exchange for giving advertisers a dubious measurement of how effective their Facebook ads are, Facebook gets to invisibly track users around the Web. Beyonce and other advertisers who stop advertising with Facebook but who forget to remove that code keep feeding information to the social giant about users’ movements.
Okay, now on to the part about Facebook reversing its previous privacy stance. Facebook has “Like” buttons all around the Web that track users’ movements; while it’s going to start using data from “Likes” in mobile apps for advertising, it’s not planning to use the desktop ones just yet. Though it’s in the plans, says Facebook’s VP-ads product marketing Brian Boland to AdAge, something a Facebook spokesperson reiterated to me when I inquired.
That’s interesting because three years ago, when a blogger noted that Facebook Likes were tracking users all over the Internet even when we were logged out, it caused a huge controversy. People flipped out about the idea of being tracked around the Web, logged in or not. Facebook calmed everyone down by saying, essentially, ‘Chill out, dudes. We don’t use ‘Likes’ to target people with ads and we never will.’
Here’s the Facebook spokesperson in 2011: “No information we receive when you see social plugins is used to target ads; we delete or anonymize this information within 90 days, and we never sell your information.”
Facebook in 2014: Information we receive when you see social plugins in mobile apps will be used to target ads, and it’s in the works for the same thing to happen when you see them when you’re browsing on your computer.
Back in 2011, Emil Protalinski at Znet pointed to the relevant part of Facebook’s Help Center talking about how Facebook wouldn’t use Like buttons all around the Web to target ads. It said at the time:
We do not share or sell the information we see when you visit a website with a Facebook social plugin to third parties and we do not use it to deliver ads to you. In addition, we will delete the data (i.e. data we receive when you see social plugins) associated with users in 90 days.
Now that same Help Center page — titled “What information does Facebook get when I visit a site with the Like button or another social plugin?” — has changed. There’s no mention of not using the info to deliver ads.
I asked Facebook whether it will be able to track users for advertising purposes who are logged out of Facebook as they surf the Web or use apps.
“At this time, we’re only looking at information when people are logged into Facebook. We’re not getting information from people who are logged out,” said the spokesperson.
“At this time.” Clever girl.*
That’s the thing about data collection. Once you collect it, it’s like a pint of ice cream sitting in the freezer, impossible to resist. Except it’s ice cream that turns into money when you eat it, which is even more tempting.
*Facebook spokesperson here was actually a man.