Facebook’s Month of Artful Dodging

It’s been one month since Facebook announced its social plug-ins and open graph, making online privacy a national front-burner issue. U.S. Senators have voiced their concern, and users have expressed their disdain on the site – with some threatening to leave for good.

Facebook took a step towards addressing the issue on Tuesday when public policy staffer Tim Sparapani told WAMU Radio the company will make changes for “people who want simplistic bands of privacy.” He said the shift will come in about two weeks, but didn’t go into more detail. Much will depend on the changes – for instance, whether they will reverse the automatic opt-in imposed on some user sharing settings.

But one thing seems unlikely to change, and that is Facebook’s slippery semantics when it comes to discussing the availability of user data for marketers. Repeatedly this month Facebook’s PR and policy staffers have been forced to thumb-wrestle with the public about the differences between “give” and “share” vs. “access.” They are also potentially engaging in a misleading bait-and-switch, vowing to consumers – truthfully on a technical level – that their personally identifiable data will never be shared with advertisers on the site. At the same time, the site makes publicly set profile data available to Instant Personalization partners and websites using Facebook Connect (or, as it’s now sometimes called, “Login with Facebook”).

Here’s Elliot Schrage, VP for public policy at the company, commenting in a May 11 NYTimes.com Q&A with readers:

“We don’t share your information with advertisers. Our targeting is anonymous. We don’t identify or share names. Period. Think of a magazine selling ads based on the demographics and perceived interests of its readers. We don’t sell the subscriber list. We protect the names.”

While that may be true as it pertains to marketers buying display ads on Facebook.com, it’s also true that Facebook Connect-utilizing websites serving as marketing channels have access to user profile information for advertising purposes. Bret Taylor, Facebook products director, made this clear in an April 26 interview with ClickZ. Among other things, he said:

The best thing for [a Web site] to do would be to put in a ‘Login with Facebook’ button on their site. And then when a user logs in with the Login with Facebook button, the product that we’ve to date been calling Facebook Connect…then that site will get access to the user ID and the public parts of the user’s profile.

In some cases, that shared information can lead to the use of people’s names, their interests, their friends’ names, their friends’ birthdays, and their friends’ interests on websites. Although to be clear, people’s actual names do not appear in the backend data that participating sites can see, which protects users from concerns like identity theft. But the user ID allows companies to access the names and have them appear on a site’s pages.

For instance, Levi.com visitors who enable Facebook Connect may see all that data presented in a customized experience via its “Friends” store. Such a visitor can also experience information about numerous strangers who have tapped the Like button on the site while having their Facebook privacy controls set to “public.” To be clear, it’s up to sites like Levi.com to decide whether or not to access the data, as well as determine how it might appear to users. So it’s technically true that Facebook doesn’t “give” away or “share” that data.

You might call it a “pie-on-the-windowsill” data policy. Facebook has baked a tasty pie – filled with ingredients that marketers will want to devour – and placed it on its kitchen windowsill to cool with the window open. And it simply leaves it there for other websites with competent Internet programmers to eat up.

Taylor made that perfectly clear, while Schrage appeared to artfully dodge that part of the discussion. What to make of the inconsistencies? One relevant-but-not-shocking conclusion: Facebook may be leveling more with ad industry publications read by marketers than it is with general-circulation publications read by the average consumer like The New York Times.

Follow Christopher Heine on Twitter at @ChrisClickZ.

Related reading