Facebook media apps raise privacy concerns

Privacy campaigners have warned that Facebook is not making users sufficiently aware of how it plans to use a mass of information, including their reading and listening habits, that it will collect from new entertainment and media applications.

Changes to the site unveiled last week mean that advertisers are looking at ways to use Facebook members’ activities as endorsements that can be placed in ads and shown to their friends on the site.

Facebook has not ruled out harnessing data on its users’ activity from independent websites and services for marketing, and some inside the company indicated last week that this was its intention, but the company says it has not yet started work on this area.

A similarly gradual approach was taken last year when Facebook launched its Like button, which was not initially used to target ads but now plays a central role in creating “Sponsored Stories”, one of its most popular ad formats.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, last week made what he called “frictionless sharing” the centrepiece of his speech at f8, the company’s annual developer conference. By integrating applications from media companies more closely into Facebook, actions such as reading an article on a news site or listening to a song are automatically transmitted to all of a user’s friends, provided the user has first granted permission to the app.

This could include every song listened to on Spotify or Deezer, every film watched on Netflix or every article read on the Guardian or Washington Post apps.

Advertisers are expecting to be able to incorporate these updates into “Sponsored Stories”, an ad format which uses an individual’s name and profile picture to recommend a product to their friends. So far, Sponsored Stories have been restricted to pages or items for which users had clicked Facebook’s Like button, added a comment or used an application.

Turning “passive” user behaviour into content for advertising is reminiscent of the company’s ill-fated Beacon advertising system, which allowed for the creation of ads using individuals’ names based on the items they bought on other websites. Beacon was closed in 2009 after an outcry and Mr Zuckerberg apologised for sharing users’ information without their explicit permission.

“Facebook is implicitly saying, since Spotify or Netflix is a partner, anything you do you’re going to like,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research group in Washington. “So any song or movie you watch, we are going to promote as if you’d expressed that you liked it. It’s turning your interaction with a Facebook business partner into a default endorsement. That can’t be right.”

Some applications have been criticised for not giving sufficient information about how their data will be used when people give their one-click approval to start sharing.

Spotify faced a barrage of complaints on web forums this week when it began to require all new users signing up for its music service to use their Facebook credentials, with shared listening through the site turned on by default. Spotify says it makes logging in a “simple and seamless social experience” and users can opt out of sharing “at any time”.

Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a internet freedoms campaigner, said: “If your friends see an ad that’s based on things you’ve chosen to publish, that might be annoying. If the ad were to publish facts about you without your knowledge, that’s where it would cross into extremely creepy territory.”

Facebook said: “Our focus now is on rolling out these features to the more than 800m people who use Facebook, not on the opportunities for marketers.” It added it had “invested heavily” in its new system to provide “complete control” over privacy. “Our new sharing features are not like Beacon at all because they only work if people explicitly opt into them. Through our data permissions model, we make clear to people what information is being asked for and how it will be used.”

Advertisers are keen to begin using the new capabilities, when Facebook allows them to.

“The [f8] developments are a boon for Facebook’s smart new ad product Sponsored Stories, effectively turbo charging the ads with more knowledge,” said Ben Ayers, head of social media at Carat, a London media agency, while adding: “Facebook needs to get very good at explaining to users how they can control what they share and with whom.”

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