Concerning Facebook & The “Do Not Track” Option

    March 16, 2012

Google’s been taking a lot of heat lately for their übercookies that were persistently tracking people who used Apple’s Safari browser and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It created enough of a stir in the technology world that it bled over into the political world, prompting the White House to draft a Consumer Bill of Rights that laid out protections of individuals’ personal information.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL were some of the companies that coalesced around the bill, leading to the “Do Not Track” initiative that will enable internet users to indicate to companies that they do not wish to have their browsing habits tracked.

One company that was curiously absent from the “Do Not Track” summit was everybody’s favorite social networking site, Facebook. It’s not as if they weren’t at least an auxiliary participant in the events that led to the creation of the “Do Not Button” talks – Google basically outted Facebook when the search company was defending its practice of exploiting a flaw in Internet Explorer related to a P3P policy. While seemingly trying to minimize the scope of their tracking practices amid the Google-Apple-Microsoft finger-pointing debate, Google asserted that Facebook was using the same IE exploit to track users with their ‘Like’ button that hangs atop most webpages these days. Facebook was unimpressed with Google’s ignominious claim and simply stated that, yes, the ‘Like’ button did in fact use the same IE bug that Google had been accused of using.

And then… that was about all you heard about Facebook. Out of sight, out of mind.

Despite using the same IE flaw that Google was using, Facebook was strangely excluded from the list of sites to be blocked by the “Do Not Track” button. The company then quietly exited stage right.

It’s probably in Facebook’s best interest that Google remains the face of the privacy villain as it allows the social networking site to remain withdrawn from the harsh spotlight. Still, that doesn’t mean that the company’s unmistakable absence from the discussion is going unnoticed. Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called for Facebook to take a more proactive role in participating in the “Do Not Track” discussions and permit its users to better control the use and collection of their personal data.

Responding to a request for a comment for this article, Facebook provided the following statement that was originally released after the Commerce Department unveiled its report outlining consumer privacy principles and announcing the browser tracking agreement:

We applaud the Commerce Department’s privacy framework for seeking to both honor the expectations consumers have when they use online services and promote the innovation that has fueled the growth of the Internet into an engine of job creation and a provider of invaluable services to consumers. We appreciate the Department’s attention to guiding principles like control, accountability, and transparency, which are core to Facebook’s commitment to its users. Additionally, we look forward to participating in the process convened by NTIA to develop enforceable codes of conduct while balancing the public’s demand for new ways to interact and share.

It’s a cleverly crafted statement that, disappointingly, manages to use many words to not really say much at all.

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal last month concerning the “Do Not Track” button, Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that they “want [users] to be able to not be tracked at all if you so choose.” While Facebook has declared their willingness to participate in the development of privacy standards for users, they should work beyond their K Street mentality and directly involve the users upon whom Facebook’s livelihood depends. If Facebook is truly concerned about transparency and privacy controls, it would bolster their standing in public opinion to not only shape privacy policies based on its own interest but also act as a bridge for the public to contribute their opinions, as well. After all, pro-privacy can still be profitable.