Evaluating Facebook’s Advertising Policies

Once more, Facebook is under fire for taking advantage of its users to generate more ad revenue. This time, Facebook is accused of selling your correspondence on their website to advertisers to increase the accuracy of their marketing. Naturally, a lot of people are upset about their private correspondence being used as data for a business to try to gain more customers behind their backs. But this buzz over Facebook sharing users’ personal information (which of course is willingly shared on their profiles or in wall posts) is a little unfair. The concept of digital privacy is a bit of an oxymoron – the Internet is by definition a public space, and other than passwords and credit card information (which itself isn’t always secure), there isn’t much you can put out there that is clandestine. Nonetheless, Facebook’s recent action is definitely creepy and undoubtedly crosses the line of personal privacy.

Having said that, I find it hard to believe that anyone would actually be surprised that his or her privacy is being invaded on the Internet. Part of the reason the Internet was invented was to escape the limited forms of communication available – it’s meant to be open, which obviously means that privacy is being sacrificed. And anyone who goes on Facebook has to admit that anything he or she posts is public domain. Otherwise, why bother sharing it in the first place? We have to accept that as technology advances, privacy as we know it will be a thing of the past. We’re becoming a culture dominated by instantaneous communication and there’s simply no escaping that fact if you surf the Internet.

This step made by Facebook is actually a brilliant idea. Businesses large and small can now guarantee that their ads will have some impact, and users will finally see ads that they may actually be interested in pursuing. The really important information, like your name or exact location, is still private – all that is being shared is what you personally find interesting and are comfortable admitting in public. And instead of ignoring ads that have no value to you, you may actually discover a good deal or a new store you didn’t even know existed. Small businesses benefit a lot more from this sort of exposure, and so do the customers. You already know where all the big places are and how much it costs to shop there, but maybe there’s a small store around the corner just as good at half the price. Facebook has a knack for bringing people together, and now it’s doing it in a more commercial way.

Critics of this move fairly point out that this information was meant for certain eyes only; you may be OK with explaining your eating or TV habits to a friend, but some random company also being informed of your favorite restaurant or reality show is a different story. However, a lot of people on Facebook have profiles that they share with everyone, even strangers. These people clearly do not care about their privacy, so why not continue the targeted advertising with these individuals, but leave the people with more private profiles alone? I think that’s a fair compromise, though it is debatable whether such a division can work or if it will be attractive to the companies buying ad space.

We’re all suspicious of Big Brother to some extent, and the thought of companies using the information we provide in a way we did not intend understandably gets under our skin. But this is hardly an unbearable assault on our private lives. There is an undeniable public aspect to Facebook that we have to face every time we log on. No matter how private you think your account is, there’s always a loophole or an exploit someone can use to get through your defenses. For example, your profile is accessible through your friends’ friend lists – how many of your friends bother to hide their friend list from the public? Many Facebook games and features require that you disclose certain information to outside parties before you can participate, and plenty of users appear to be alright with that.

It’s silly to zero in on this one instance of snooping when there are so many other unintended and permitted invasions of privacy that we allow every time we go on Facebook. Digital privacy is far more permeable than personal privacy – sometimes you just have to remember that this is the risk you take when you go online, and that there is a price to be paid for putting yourself out there.

Kerry Wakely is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.