The New York Times's Bits blog points us
to an interview with Esther Dyson in which she raises questions about the way social networking sites (especially Facebook) are planning use customers' data.
She seems like she might be lumping together two different issues that ought to be kept separate. If she's simply saying that Facebook should get permission before sharing private user data with advertisers, it's hard to argue with that. But she seems to be making the broader claim that Facebook shouldn't even use private information to choose ads on its own site
without getting the user's permission first. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. The information is already on Facebook's servers, so it's not likely to create new security risks to have the advertising algorithm take the information into account. Moreover, targeted ads can be chosen without ever giving advertisers access to anybody's private information. A shoe store might, for example, ask to have its advertising displayed to every Facebook user who's under 35, female, and within 50 miles of the 63105 area code. The shoe store would never get a list of Facebook users who met that criteria, nor would they be given the specific age or zip code of people who click on the ad. Rather, Facebook's own software would automatically display those ads and then bill the shoe store based on the number of impressions or clicks that were generated.
As far as I can see, there's absolutely no privacy issue there. Indeed, the debate gives me a sense of Deja Vu, because similar concerns were raised about contextual ads in GMail. As I pointed out
at the time, having a server scan your email in order to choose ads to display isn't "snooping" in any meaningful sense. Once people realized that computer algorithms, not human beings, would be choosing who gets which ads, almost everyone agreed that it wasn't a privacy issue. The same argument applies to Facebook. Having an algorithm on Facebook's server use personal information to pick ads is completely different from giving advertisers access to users' private information.