Facebook Lubes PR Gears to Dampen Privacy Worries

Does Facebook's latest massaging of its privacy practices suggest a softer, gentler attitude toward users who would like to use its network without paying for it with their personal data? Not hardly. "The reality is that firms like Facebook and Google mine every aspect of our on-site activities," said the 451 Group's Alan Pelz-Sharpe. "It's how they make money."

Facebook on Thursday announced Privacy Basics, a set of interactive guides to answer the most commonly questions about how users can control their information on its site.

It also aired proposed updates to its terms, data policy and cookies policy; improvements to ads based on the apps and sites members use; and expansion of user control over ads.

“This is mostly a messaging exercise,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told the E-Commerce Times. “They are making it simpler to avoid misunderstandings and reduce concerns associated with confusion.”

Such simplification “could leave out important elements,” he pointed out, “but it’s [still] generally better for users, because more of them will likely read the simplified language and be able to make more measured decisions from it.”

Asked if Privacy Basics changes Facebook’s privacy policy or just simplifies its language, company spokesperson Matt Steinfeld declined to comment for the record.

Subscribers have seven days to comment on the proposals.

Specifics on Facebook’s Proposals

Facebook is updating its policies to explain how it gets location information depending on the features subscribers use.

It also is working on ways to display the most relevant information based on users’ physical locations and what they and their friends are doing, echoing Google’s efforts in this area.

In some areas, Facebook is testing a Buy button that allows purchases without leaving its site. It also is working on ways to make transactions more convenient and secure.

The company has shortened and simplified its data policy, which is now much more comprehensible.

It will also ask for permission to use subscribers’ phone locations to offer optional features such as check-ins or adding locations to posts.

Facebook will not adhere to Do Not Track requests in browsers.

“There is no industry consensus,” Facebook’s Steinfeld explained, “so we’ve been following this closely and are interested in seeing where the industry lands on this.”

Facebook continues “to work actively with privacy advocates, regulators and others to build a consensus around what companies should do if they receive a signal,” he continued. “We’re optimistic that consensus can be achieved.”

The company does honor signals from iOS or Android devices to limit ad tracking if users have them enabled, and it lets subscribers opt out of ads through the Digital Advertising Alliance’s AdChoices program, Steinfeld noted.

Buy, Buy, Buy

Facebook’s movement toward inclusion of location-based information and its inclusion of the Buy button could make it easier for subscribers to make a purchase after seeing an ad, Enderle said, adding that Facebook has had “unusually low” conversion rates.

What about privacy?

“If you have privacy concerns, you likely shouldn’t be using social networks or any ad-funded platform,” Enderle suggested.

Facebook and the Privacy Conundrum

In essence, Facebook’s latest moves are all about catering to advertisers and making its site stickier for subscribers, as they won’t have to leave it to make purchases on the Web.

Oh, and they might be an attempt to ameliorate anger over its move in May to begin tapping users’ Internet browsing history to serve up ads. An international consortium of privacy groups urged regulators in the U.S. and the European Union to block that practice.

It’s not likely that Facebook — which repeatedly has come under fire from privacy advocates and been investigated by various authorities over its privacy policies — is turning over a new leaf.

“The reality is that firms like Facebook and Google mine every aspect of our on-site activities,” Alan Pelz-Sharpe, a research director at the 451 Group, told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s how they make money.”

While these companies are not comfortable with discussing or disclosing the extent or granularity of their analyses of users’ activities, “questions are being asked more often, and folk are becoming more wary of posting and sharing information,” Pelz-Sharpe said. “PR campaigns of this nature — for that’s what this really is — to assure us all is well, will soon become the norm.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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