European Commission Goes After Facebook for Targeted Ads

by Jordan Richardson on November 29, 2011

The European Commission is gunning for Facebook amid concerns over the amount of data the social networking site gathers from users.

The plan is for the European Commission to revise data protection laws so that web companies like Facebook operate on a more transparent playing field. “I call on service providers — especially social media sites — to be more transparent about how they operate. Users must know what data is collected and further processed [and] for what purposes,” Viviane Reding, the vice-president of the Commission, said.

Part of the policy change advocated by the Commission involves a directive instructing member states to implement laws that would require Facebook and other companies not to display targeted advertisements unless users “opt in.” This is a blow to Facebook’s business model, without a doubt, and it could also mean a more indiscreet advertising experience for users.

The reasoning of the European Commission comes from a good place. Trepidations over the amount of data Facebook collects have been in play for quite some time, coming to a head when user Max Schrems made a request for the data the site held on him and received a CD with 1,222 pages on it.

Facebook tracks every single activity by every single user and stores it on computers in the United States. The social networking site’s data mining goes beyond what users “like,” too, delving into comments left on pages and all sorts of other web activity.

The European Commission is targeting how Facebook uses said piles and piles of data in advertising.

But Mark Zuckerberg’s baby uses an ad creation tool to taper the emphasis of its advertisements, preventing the appearance of colossal banner advertisements about sodas or cars. Advertisers are permitted to ask specific things about users through the creation tool and from there Facebook delivers the advertising precisely to those particular users while keeping them nameless.

When you consider the alternative, the free-for-all auction of your data to third parties from who-knows-where, Facebook’s model actually seems quite refreshing.

The fact is that advertising has always been about targeting specific groups of users. Check out the discrepancy between daytime advertising and the commercials that air during primetime for an example of how this model operates. Or scope out the sum of beer and truck ads that take place during hockey games. Facebook simply makes use of an even more explicit model.

The trouble is that so few understand how Facebook’s advertising works and fewer understand why Facebook collects so much data, including the European Commission. The site does have a comprehensive data use policy that it habitually revises; it does outline exactly how its advertising works, going so far as to invite users to check out the ad creation tool for themselves.

It’s hard to say whether the European Commission’s legal proposal will really change how Facebook’s technology stores and collects user data. There are already considerations to adopt comparable proposals in Canada and the United States, however, so we could soon be seeing the end of directed advertisements and the perpetuation of broad blanket ads to wider demographic groups.

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Written by: Jordan Richardson. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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