Home Facebook on Beacon: We Don’t Collect Info Unless You Opt-In

Facebook on Beacon: We Don’t Collect Info Unless You Opt-In

Last week we wondered if maybe MoveOn was a bit premature in declaring victory when Facebook changed their Beacon advertising system to be explicitly opt-in. Was Facebook still gathering information on your purchasing behavior, even if you had opted out of the program? Computer Associates blogger Stefan Berteau, who reported that Facebook was being sent data about activity on affiliate sites, even when not logged in, wondered the same thing.

Facebook later emailed Stefan the following statement:

“When a Facebook user takes a Beacon-enabled action on a participating site, information is sent to Facebook in order for Facebook to operate Beacon technologically. If a Facebook user clicks “No, thanks” on the partner site notification, Facebook does not use the data and deletes it from its servers. Separately, before Facebook can determine whether the user is logged in, some data may be transferred from the participating site to Facebook. In those cases, Facebook does not associate the information with any individual user account, and deletes the data as well.”

While some commenters on the CA blog aren’t buying it, Facebook’s promise that they aren’t collecting user data except from those who opt-in to the program essentially puts to bed fears that the company is gathering user behavior data from outside sites without user consent. But if they were, it would likely violate a number of the privacy policies of their partner sites.

Overstock, for example, says in their privacy policy that purchase information “may be disclosed only to our staff and to third parties involved in the completion of your transaction, the delivery of your order or the analysis and support of your use of the Overstock.com web site.” Facebook doesn’t sound like any of those things.

It’s our own fault for dealing with companies that have questionable privacy policies. Blockbuster, for example, has language in its policy that basically gives it carte blanche to share your name, address, and rental history with third parties. “Blockbuster, its affiliates and franchisees (if permitted by Blockbuster) on occasion may disclose to their business partners certain data, such as names and addresses and the genre of products rented or purchased by Users or Members, so that the business partner may send their own direct marketing communications to Users and Members,” reads one passage in the lengthy privacy policy.

Facebook’s Beacon concessions may actually be a blessing in disguise for privacy conscious web users. Behavioral targeting is coming of age on the Internet, and more and more web sites are scrambling to collect user data and build profiles of people’s interests, location, relationship status, and other personal details that can be used to better target ads. Last year, for example, United Airlines ran a campaign on Yahoo! that used search and weather lookup data to figure out where people were located and where they might be thinking of vactioning and serve ads pairing those two locations.

That sort of targeting has advertisers salivating — research firm eMarketer predicts that behavioral targeting will be a $3.8 billion industry segment by 2011 — and it has privacy watchdogs wary.

While we still feel that the user backlash over Facebook’s Beacon system was overstated by MoveOn and the media, it was certainly well covered. As users begin to wake up to how much data is being collected by companies, and the sorts of things companies do with that data, you may begin to see changes in the type of behavioral profiling that is tolerated or allowed on the web. As MediaPost reports, privacy inquiries in Europe especially may have a profound impact on the advertising industry because the EU has stronger privacy protections than the US.

Advertisers tread a fine line between getting their ads in front of the right consumers and turning users off because they feel their privacy has been violated. “You want to have enough targeting that a consumer notices the message and pays attention, but you don’t want it to be so obvious that they are thinking [there] is targeting,” Tracy Ryan, professor of advertising research at Virginia Commonwealth University told the Associated Press. “That would be scary.” As consumers become more savvy to the types of information being collected about them, they will be more in tune to ads that are targeted directly at them and that could be a turn off.

What do you think? Does behavioral targeting bother you? Should companies be able to collect data on your web surfing and buying habits and use it to target ads? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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