Facebook’s received a lot of attention in the three days since I posted about their use of users’ profile pictures in ads. Numerous blogs have covered the story since, including both DownloadSquad and Mashable, which invariably led to enough of a ruckus that Facebook felt inclined to address the matter.
David Swain, of the Product and Platform Communications dept. at Facebook, left this comment yesterday on the initial post. I left the comment as publicly viewable:
Matthew, I work with Facebook and wanted to clarify a few things. Most importantly, these ads are not from Facebook. Similar to your post, several weeks ago, we received some reports of deceptive content in ads placed within apps by developers working with third party ad networks. While these ads are from external providers, we are concerned about any potential threat to our users’ experience. We recently had deceptive ads removed from a number of apps and prohibited two entire advertising networks from providing services to applications on Facebook Platform because they were not compliant with our policies and failed to correct their advertising practices.
We are continuing to investigate to make sure ads that violate our policies stay off Facebook and may take further action against developers who host the ads.
It’s an important issue, and one we take seriously.
My response was as follows:
That’s extremely good to hear, and yet I can’t help but ask why this sort of information doesn’t get pushed to your users. I know I’m not the only person (as evidenced by the twitter-traffic) that feels the way I do about your company’s advertising practices. Ads are expected, and only a fool would think to complain about reasonable advertisements on a site that provides services free of charge. That doesn’t make the ads any less gaudy, or even flat-out offensive.
User-data is expected to be used for marketing, but not the users themselves. I very seriously doubt that Facebook thought this practice honorable to begin with, or they wouldn’t have done it so stealthily. In fact several people have mentioned to me that they would have opted in had they been given the option, if only for the entertainment value in having their faces displayed on ads that would otherwise be completely non sequitur. Since this was not the case, the overall opinion I’m getting is that your users think less of your company now than they did before.
I would think that after the recent debacle over the ownership of user-data that Facebook would tread more lightly. Using someone’s visage without their informed consent, with the goal of making a profit (whether it be for Facebook or an affiliate), is nothing short of dirty. People usually get paid for that sort of thing, and at the very least they’re told about it first.
I sincerely hope that what you’ve said about your company is true, and I mean that. I think it’s great that you came here to respond the way you did. Thank you.
It’s important to note that while David does mention an ongoing battle with “deceptive” ad-content providers, he unfortunately neglects to address the issue of Facebook handing users’ profile pictures over to these people to begin with. Nor does he attempt to elucidate as to why the company felt it best to opt its users in by default, never directly inform them, and proceed to bury the opt-out setting so far into preferences that it would rarely be found.
As if this behavior wasn’t suspect enough, Facebook then felt it necessary to leave this ominously guilt-ridden disclaimer perched on top of that opt-out:
“Facebook occasionally pairs advertisements with relevant social actions from a user’s friends to create Facebook Ads. Facebook Ads make advertisements more interesting and more tailored to you and your friends. These respect all privacy rules. You may opt out of appearing in your friends’ Facebook Ads below.”
First of all, why would they bother including such a statement if it weren’t to preempt the same backlash they’re experiencing now? The clause “these respect all privacy rules” especially stands out as being defensive of their actions. Clearly they were aware that what they were doing would upset users.
This is something that began as a simple footnote at the end of my initial post. I assumed that this must simply be a bug, some code that just doesn’t sit well with the browser. I myself was unaffected as I’m using Safari 4, so I didn’t pay it much mind when friends told me they had issues. Then I spent some time going through the analytics of the traffic that post got as the story matured. Contrary to global averages showing Internet Explorer as the dominant market share, over 50% of the visitors on this site are using Firefox 3. Now, I know that it would be extremely sloppy to turn around and say that there’s a likelihood that Facebook also sees higher than average numbers for this browser, but it’s certainly tempting.
As more and more people reported throughout the comments sections of other blog-posts that they were unable to see the opt-out due to using Firefox 3, so too did the numbers rise of people who scathingly implied that Facebook had intended it that way. I’m not prone to jumping on conspiracy theory bandwagons, but you’ve got to admit, it’s certainly tempting.