Conspiracy in Plain View: Facebook's Secret, Closed-Door Club for Advertisers

Last Updated Jul 4, 2011 12:27 PM EDT

Facebook has created a secret, invitation-only club of top advertisers who will meet behind closed doors four times a year to plot how Facebook can improve its ad offerings. Membership within the cabal will be rotated annually by Facebook's top advertising exec, vp/global ad sales Carolyn Everson.

There is no word on whether Everson will make everyone wear cowls and masks, as in Eyes Wide Shut. Although it is not unusual for companies to hear advice from marketing partners in confidence, Everson wants her meetings to take place in public venues such as the Association of National Advertisers' conference in October. In other words, she's ostentatiously holding a party to which you and most other people in the ad biz will not be invited. There will be 12 members of the "client council," whose invitations are already in the mail -- and they don't yet know that they're on the list. It's a virtual velvet rope.

The Facebook Ad Illuminati are likely to generate more ad dollars for the social network -- which has of late upped its game with advertisers. But one casualty of this success is likely to be consumer privacy. Facebook has been working assiduously to scrape the site for every byte of user data it can sell to advertisers, even though it is not obvious to Facebook's users that their lives are being constantly spied on by the company's biggest advertisers.

A lawsuit against 'Like'
This month, a lawsuit alleging Facebook illegally allows advertisers to track users' use of the "Like" button was filed in a California federal court. The case claims that the social network tells advertisers the identities of the people who click on their ads in violation of Facebook's terms of service.

Maintaining your privacy on Facebook is almost a full-time job. Every time Facebook updates its privacy options, default settings that users must adjust themselves kick in. Lifehacker recently identified 12 different sets of settings you need to adjust to stop Facebook from mining your data, from the obvious -- allowing only friends to see your photos -- to the Orwellian (you remembered to switch Facebook's facial recognition technology to "off" in your settings, right? That's not a joke. There's a guide to disabling facial recognition here.)

It's not just Facebook. Advertisers who may not feel bound by Facebook's rules are collecting information too, according to PCWorld:

... you don't have to buy user data from Facebook to obtain it. Some marketers plant a widget (a small app) at their Facebook page, and then track all of the people who click on the widget. And make no mistake that the companies that post quizzes, lists, and games on Facebook are indeed aggregating the personal data of everyone who agrees to their terms of service. Web marketers can acquire user data in various forms from them, too.
Facebook ads 'misleading'

Even Facebook's regular display ads can be misleading, according to Forrester Research, because unlike Google's they do not display the URL to which a user will be directed if you click on them.

All of which goes to say that as Congress increasingly eyes online privacy issues, and as consumers become more aware of the information Facebook has taken from them (and the fact that they have not been compensated in cash for the loss of that valuable asset), it seems odd that Everson would structure her counsel along the lines of a Bilderberg-style international conspiracy.