Data changes leave Facebook up on points

Facebook announced last week it was to begin serving ads to users based on their browsing history across the web and not just their activity on Facebook.

Russell Parsons

The hope, at least, is users will be served contextual ads based on shopping intentions. For example, if it is thought a Facebook user is researching a purchase based on their searches or app use, an appropriate ad will be served to them in Facebook.

The big change is at present, Facebook only employs behavioural advertising based on Facebook activity – pages liked and visited, for example.

In its explanation, or, a cynic might put it, defence, the social network explains that what it is doing is common practice. It is, of course. Online behavioural advertising is employed and executed by many on behalf of brands.  It was also at pains to point out that users can opt out using industry developed opt-out platforms and operating system tools.

If such a move is to be seen pejoratively as an unsolicited smash and grab on prized data and online privacy, as some privacy campaigners somewhere might well point out, the more charitable might view the second of a double-headed announcement considerably more favourably.

Facebook also introduced “ad preferences” which will see an arrow appear in the top right hand corner of the ad that when clicked will present the user with an option ‘why am I seeing this ad?’. If the latter is clicked a user will be presented with an explanation of how the ad relates to their behaviour within Facebook and why, therefore, they are seeing it. The social network will then allow them to amend the activity and interests data Facebook keeps on them if an objection is made.

The purpose, according to Facebook, is to provide users “with control over the ads that they see”. It certainly takes online transparency on and arguably puts Facebook ahead of its peers in the area.

Google, for example, allows people to access, change and block some of the data it uses to serve ads but it is thought Facebook is the first to specifically tell people how an ad is linked to an analysis of their interests.

If Facebook can resist the temptation to bombard users with useless ads based on half-thought present ideas for dear Auntie Maud and serve their ads based on insight rather than blunt behavioural tools, this concession to the online media norm might well be a sacrifice worth making in return for greater control.

The breakdown of a users’ ad profile and the ability to manipulate is a decent trade for giving up a relatively small amount of data.

In making the announcement, Facebook has demonstrated an understanding of the importance of transparency.

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