November 7, 2007 at 3:12 pm | Posted in Online services, Web Apps | 11 Comments

A while back, a friend of mine invited me to come to Facebook, a social networking site online. For some reason, their content required that I sign up to see it. One of the first red flags was that it required a valid date of birth. I canceled out and took a look at their user agreement. I was appalled. Unlike most user agreements, this one was entirely in their interest.

The agreement states you are required to give personal information and keep it accurate and that all content you provide is theirs. Theres a lot of information on 3rd parties that is anything but transparent. Note things like:

“We may share your information with third parties, including responsible companies with which we have a relationship.” In other words, they will share your information to make money and market to you, including by age and gender.

The service is notoriously insecure and in the past 10’s of thousands of profiles have been downloaded by outsiders. A News Feed service added automatically takes snippets of your information, even set to private, and distributes it publicly. Basically, the service is designed not as a social networking site but as an information gathering service which uses social networking as the carrot.

And now, as they say, the other shoe has dropped. They have introduced Facebook Ads. First, the SocialAds aspect allows users to share ad content they find interesting. Second, advertizers can create profiles like individuals and obviously thus share ads socially via friends. And the winner is, Facebook will provide advertisers with information about your use of the service. Combine that will all the demographic info you’ve given them and they know who you are and what you’re doing there.

Facebook Insights is the service that will give access to data about usage, demographics, ad performance and trends on their pages. It won’t directly offer individual identifying info, they say. But how hard would that be to figure out in such an interlinked service? Unlike the decentralized Internet, Facebook behaves as a semi-closed system.

But the new Facebook Beacon lets users share what they’ve been doing on other participating sites like eBay and Travelocity. So that adds parts of the net into the equation.

There was already 100,000 business profiles at the launch of the service. They set them up with games and activities, then set it up so users can tell their friends what they did there, thus drawing in others.

They have 50 million active users, up from 12 mill in January. 250,000 more every day and over half come to the site daily. Microsoft has bought a hunk of Facebook.
On the bright side, marketers have little control over where their ads appear, perhaps alongside some vulgar content, so some are reticent. MySpace exists as a much more user oriented service and does not claim ownership of content. And Google launched OpenSocial, an application thats designed to run with multiple social networks, including MySpace (eventually).

As with any public site, don’t put anything there you wouldn’t want everyone to know (even in so called private areas). And post only low-res copies of your work, watermarked ideally.

From my side, I’m staying out of predatory services. Interconnected networks are great- I get some traffic here from the WordPress community, for example. And some of the discussion groups are excellent. But some service are best left alone.


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  1. Just as a followup to this, facebook has considerably improved its user agreement recently. They have removed ownership statements but retain the ability to use your content as they see fit.
    They have removed the language about selling your info to third parties and about harvesting info about you from other places on the net.

    But the new “features” I mention take them in new directions. Some people will probably enjoy the benefits of a “friendship” with Coke or something.


  2. Sounds like my initial concerns about Facebook trends were warranted. The new Beacon component doesn’t just “let users share” it actually tracks their activities on external sites and feeds the info back to facebook, even if they are not logged in.

    “Stefan Berteau found that Beacon tracks users even if they are logged off from the social-networking site and have declined having their activities broadcast to friends.”



  3. A little more on Beacon:
    “Late last week, Facebook acknowledged that Beacon “may collect information on non-Facebook members.” Any computer used to access a Facebook account becomes a tracking machine for Facebook computers.

    They now claim to make tracking an opt-out feature but it doesn’t really turn off.


  4. Facebook suing porn company that “scraped” personal data from its site


  5. […] March 17, 2008 at 9:06 am | In Economoney, Internet | A bit ago, I commented about Facebook’s desire to use Beacon, a product that would track your usage not only in Facebook […]


  6. […] social networking sites, be careful of the user agreements. Many are designed as ad servers and for collecting demographic information. Some will take ownership of any content you post or spam everyone in your address book with […]


  7. Recently the Canadian Federal government went after Facebook for breaching Canadian privacy laws. Facebook has agreed to make changes. We’ll see.


    In reviewing the points, it’s notable Facebook is now allowing deletion of accounts. However, their claim to not be tracking invitation success is BS. I get reminders of invitations with the names of prior invites. New invites add more names. The list is growing.


  8. […] Facebook. If you’re a musician, MySpace has advantages. Personally, I’d stay away from Facebook. Some of the others are pure information collection systems. If you want to communicate with the […]


  9. Facebook is taking this a step further, tying into multiple external databases that track your retail & online spending and court and other gov’t activity, matching ads to that. Never click on online ads? Doesn’t matter – science proves they work anyway, just by exposure.

    Evidently 2 of the companies they’re tying into are under FTC investigation.


  10. A recent CA court case has caused Facebook to clarify uses.

    By default, they will use your profile picture and any picture you’re tagged in to identify you in other users pictures. This means that even if you avoid posting embarrassing pictures you wouldn’t want your family or employer to see, if someone else does it, you’ll still be outed.

    Further, as I’ve mentioned prior, Facebook owns what you post online so can use it in advertising. The case was over Facebooks use of personal pictures in advertising, without the users knowledge or consent. Facebook has responded to the case by clarifying it’s user agreement but not changing this practice:

    “You give us permission to use your name, and profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. This means, for example, that you permit a business or other entity to pay us to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you.”

    Not only do you not get paid, but you have no control over what third party company uses your image or content for their advertising. And you have no way of knowing they’ve done this. Not only is this true of what you have on your profile, but it’s true of everything you’ve posted in the past and deleted as well. Not to mention what others have posted on your “wall”.

    Predatory service or what?


  11. […] for your usage data and demographics for targeted marketing. This is the operating principle of Facebook, for example. Google picked this up then it migrated onto smart phones in a big way. Some […]


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