Daily Archives: 2009-08-05

User complaints about photos in Facebook ads

I wrote about the mess caused by Facebook’s insecure application platform nearly 2 months ago. I also wrote about the long-term problems with “informed consent” for data use in social networks. In the past week, both problems came to a head as users began complaining about multiple third-party ad networks using their photos in banner ads. When I mentioned this problem in June, Facebook had just shut down the biggest ad networks for “deceptive practices,” specifically by duping users into a US$20 per month ringtone subscription. The void created by banning SocialReach and SocialHour apparently led to many new advertisers popping up in their place, with most carrying on the practice of using user photos to hawk quizzes, dating services, and the like. The ubiquitous ads annoyed enough users that Facebook was convinced to ban advertisers from using personal data. This is a welcome move, but Facebook underhandedly inserted a curious new privacy setting at “Privacy Settings->News Feed and Wall->Facebook Ads”:

Facebook does not give third party applications or ad networks the right to use your name or picture in ads. If this is allowed in the future, this setting will govern the usage of your information.

With this change, Facebook has quietly reserved the right to re-allow applications to utilise user data in ads in the future and opted everybody in to the feature. We’ve written about social networks minimising privacy salience, but this is plainly deceptive. It’s hard not to conclude this setting was purposefully hidden from sight, as ads shown by third-party applications have nothing to do with the News Feed or Wall. The choices of “No One” or “Only Friends” are also obfuscating, as only friends’ applications can access data from Facebook’s API to begin with; this is a simple “opt-out” checkbox dressed up to making being opted in seem more private. Meanwhile, Facebook has been showing users a patronising popup message on log-in:

Worried about privacy? Your photos are safe. There have been misleading rumors recently about the use of your photos in ads. Don’t believe them. These rumors were related to third-party applications, and not ads shown by Facebook. Get the whole story at the Facebook Blog, or check out the Help Center.

This message is misleading, if not outright dishonest, and shows an alarming dismissal of what was a widespread practice that offended many users. People weren’t concerned with whether their photos were sent to advertisers by Facebook itself or third-parties. They don’t want their photos or names used or stored by advertisers regardless of the technical details. The platform API remains fundamentally broken and gives users no way to prevent applications from accessing their photos. Facebook would be best served by fixing this instead of dismissing users’ concern for privacy as “misleading rumors.”