About-face On Insidious Marketing
The Sunday Age
Sunday December 2, 2007
Facebook users have taken a stand against online marketing, writes Melissa Kent.THINK online privacy is an oxymoron? Well, not just yet. Last week, the cool credentials of popular online hangout Facebook took a hammering as users gave a virtual two-fingered salute to commercial intrusions on their privacy.The social network giant, which boasts 54 million users, was forced to tighten privacy measures on its new advertising strategy after more than 50,000 Facebook members mounted an online mutiny.Lauded as "innovative" at its launch three weeks ago, the controversial initiative tracked what users were buying on partner sites and shared that information on friends' news feeds.On Friday it bowed to a user backlash when thousands signed a petition on civic site Moveon.org claiming the automated "social ads" violated people's privacy."I saw my (girlfriend) bought an item I had been saying I wanted . . . so now part of my Christmas gift has been ruined," Matthew Helfgott wrote in a posting in an online forum. "Facebook is ruining Christmas!"In response, Facebook tweaked the system so that people must now "opt in" as opposed to the original format that automatically included them unless they took the effort to "opt out".The virtual protest has highlighted the difficulty facing social networks of turning their popularity into profit and capitalising on their huge databases of consumer information without invading privacy.Facebook's predicament is particularly acute as it struggles to justify its $US15 billion ($A16.9 billion) valuation, which was set when Microsoft took a 1.6% stake for $US240 million. The appeal for advertisers is obvious. Partners such as Sony, Blockbuster, STA Travel and CBS can target ads at specific audiences, strengthened by the perceived endorsement of their products by a trusted friend.As founder Mark Zuckerberg told advertisers at the November 6 launch: "With Facebook, you will be able to select exactly the audience you want to reach, and we will only show your ads to them. We know exactly what gender someone is, what activities they are interested in, their location, country, city or town, interests, gender, work history, political views."But Perth-based lawyer Kim Heitman, of Electronic Frontiers Australia, said people objected to the use of their identities for commercial purposes in a social space."It does very much intrude commercial considerations into non-commercial space," he said."We have a situation where people using web pages do not have a clear delineation between chatting with their friends and the marketing machines of companies. Companies which exploit their users tend to come undone very quickly."Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller said social networks offered a liberating forum for people to create new personas."We have been aware that young people have been actively redefining what friendship means through online interactions," he said. "In some ways, social networks have become the preferred way to interact and that is resulting in a phenomenal amount of information becoming available."The risk of posting private details on social networks was exposed last month when the BBC program Watchdog sent out a fake Facebook user called Amba Friend to 100 people.Despite knowing nothing about "Amba Friend", 35 accepted the request, giving the BBC access to enough personal details to successfully open an online bank account and apply for a credit card in one user's name.A survey by software security company Symantec found two-thirds of Australians were more likely to share personal information on the web than in person."We have found people just aren't too concerned about sharing their information online," David Freer of Symantec said. "In fact, they often feel more comfortable because they feel they are anonymous, whereas if I walked out onto the street and someone asked for my name and contact details, I wouldn't tell them."He warned users to decline friend requests from unknown people, apply security settings offered on sites and read the terms and conditions before joining.Dr Martin Gibbs, a lecturer in information systems at the University of Melbourne, said little was known about what happened to information posted online."It's not well understood how long those records will persist - it may be 20 or 30 years, so the choice of book you read or movie you saw when you were a 20-year-old student may come back to haunt you," he said."An employer 10 years later may ask, 'Why are they reading these books or seeing those films?' We don't know."