Last Updated Jun 15, 2010 4:19 PM EDT
Facebook says that the activity is out of its control, not that it matters. From a user's view, the activity seemed to take place on Facebook's site, so the company is guilty by association. The irony is that the techniques in play are about as old as web marketing.
I first heard of this incarnation of privacy problem from a colleague who had recently placed an order for baby products on Diapers.com, a site owned by e-commerce company Quidsi Inc. Later, she logged in at Facebook and started to play Lexulous, a word game application on the site. Suddenly she noticed a Diapers.com ad showing the same two product she had just bought.
I spoke with Facebook spokesperson Brandon McCormick, who says that the vendors have significant autonomy in what appears on their pages. "It's not our ad," he said. "That's why we have our policy that doesn't allow third parties to target ads based on personal information."
One of Facebook's strengths has been a roster of applications that entice users to return and spend time on the system. All software developers want to find ways to make their investment pay, and display advertising is a popular option. As often happens on the web, third party ad networks actually serve the ads and also place and read cookies on users' systems to gather behavioral and personally identifying information.
According to McCormick, the practice of a third party displaying an ad on someone else's site is called retargeting. The ad network effectively creates an independent relationship with a consumer, separately tracking activity. "Retargeting isn't anything new, and I'm surprised that users are surprised," McCormick says.
From a consumer's view, Facebook owns the web site and, therefore, is responsible for the experience, no matter what policies it has in place. If you've spent the last couple of years getting kicked one way and another over privacy issues, you're the natural target. It's an argument for the approach that Apple takes with iAd and the iPhone and iPad. Ultimately, people will point at the name on the device -- or on the web site.
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