Facebook Fallout: Balancing Innovation, Information Use

Thanks a lot, Facebook. Here we’ve been working to educate the public about behavioral targeting, trying to make it clear that behavioral targeting doesn’t connect to personally identifiable information, then you create a program that sets us way back. The Beacon solution raises not only privacy concerns for users but also some bigger questions about the confluence of technological innovation and personal information in this age.

Beacon allows advertisers to collect information on user actions to create what Facebook calls Social Ads. Social Ads are then targeted based on advertiser preference. That simple description is enough to raise the hackles of both Facebook users and privacy zealots. The backlash has been severe. As providers of free content, Facebook attempted to monetize that content the same way all free content is monetized: through advertising. That would be fine if it were that simple. Most of us understand that the Internet, like television, is free to us because of the banner ads we see along the edges of the pages we visit. However, Beacon exacerbated the privacy concerns associated with targeted advertising by publishing online purchases of its users on their profiles without consent. If there’s one thing we know about the online community, it’s that the Internet’s anonymity is sacrosanct. So it’s no surprise that this move ruffled the feathers of consumers and advertisers alike.

As consumers have solid reasons to sound the alarm, advertisers are backing out of the program and Facebook is backpedaling. The end result is bigger than Facebook, though. Both commercially and personally, we’re connected to the world in a way never before imagined, even a short time ago. We are in a new frontier for conducting business and personal communication over the Web and could all benefit from some simple ground rules for advertisers and publishers. I suggest the following ultra-high-level goals, borrowed liberally from a number of places:

  • Do no harm. Personally identifiable information is off limits. Don’t track or capture any data that can be traced back to a human being.

  • Be explicit. In nontechnical language, explain your mechanism. If consumer opt-in is required, make sure all language is clear.
  • Prioritize. Be judicious. Watch your delivery frequency and other measures to make sure consumers don’t feel hounded, even anonymously.
  • Innovate with consumers in mind first. New options for advertisers should be thought through carefully and vetted with consumer focus groups for feedback prior to implementation. This isn’t the time to shoot from the hip.
  • Think long term. In an industry that moves so quickly with new players and options emerging, you may often find it difficult to avoid the me-too, short-term focus. Resist. Think about what’s in the long-term best interest for your clients and the ultimate consumers.
  • Police yourself. If we don’t make sure we’re doing all we can to protect the populace, others will do so with much less information, knowledge, and subtlety. We all lose, then.

The goal shouldn’t be to stifle positive innovation but to balance that innovation with consumers’ long-term interests. All other constituencies must recognize and submit to a lesser priority if this is to work. Who should be charged with creating these rules: the Network Advertising Initiative, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission? Whatever ground rules emerge from whatever sources, they should be agreed on, implemented, and policed with as much energy as we’ve been spending on R&D.

It’s time to get real. The Internet is not an advertising medium — at least not primarily. It’s a content, communication, and interaction vehicle owned and driven by the consuming public. Advertisers and publishers are along for the ride as long as it doesn’t push consumers aside or tick them off. Innovation is critical, but consumers benefit from the attention of advertisers and publishers only if those parties understand the primacy of consumers.

Facebook thrived because it was conceived as a connecting point for consumers, a niche of consumers at that. Once the ad model begins to take precedence, decisions aren’t typically in consumers’ best interest. And, ultimately, that’s not in the publisher’s or advertiser’s best interest. If we can all agree that what’s best for consumers is best for everyone in the long run and guide innovation in that direction, we can continue to improve the online experience for both consumers and advertisers.

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