Facebook Denies Selling Off User Info

    February 2, 2009
    WebProNews Staff

British news site The Sunday Telegraph stirred up privacy advocates by reporting Facebook’s plan to sell user data to companies looking to do faster market research. Facebook tells WebProNews The Telegraph got it all wrong.

The article ran with the headline “Networking site cashes in on friends,” and a teaser below saying Facebook had found a way to profit from members’ private data. The article described the development of “one of the world’s largest market research databases,” which would launch this spring.
Facebook Denies Selling Off User Info
“[The new tool] will soon allow multinational companies to selectively target its members in order to research the appeal of new products. Companies will be able to pose questions to specially selected members based on such intimate details as whether they are single or married and even whether they are gay or straight.”

If true, Facebook could have had a PR disaster the size of or bigger than the one caused by Beacon a couple of years ago.

Facebook Denies Selling Off User Info
Mark Zuckerberg
CEO of Facebook

The article was based on an interview the Telegraph conducted with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, Randi, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Zuckerberg said companies had expressed interest in the tool as a way to make market research more efficient via rather instant focus groups on Facebook.

The error in the article should have been apparent (but wasn’t to many who wrote about it thereafter with legitimate privacy concerns) when the authors named the program “engagement ads.”

Speaking on behalf of Facebook, Matt Hicks clarified that Facebook has been testing engagement ads since last fall, and are a reiteration of Facebook Polls, which came to light briefly a year and a half ago. The new approach is to place poll questions within an advertisement itself that users have the option of responding to. This is what CareerBuilder and AT&T have been testing, and not a set of user data sold to them by Facebook.

“We are not on the brink of launching a market research tool,” said Hicks. “No user data is being sold.”

Hicks denied Facebook had any similar plans in the future. When asked what kind of information Facebook shares with advertisers, Hicks listed standard statistics, like numbers of user responses, clicks, impressions, and aggregated, general demographic information about who clicked on ads (women, men over 30, etc.).

“Nothing about the individual user is shared unless the user has chosen to do so,” said Hicks. 

Response to request for comment, correction, and/or update from The Sunday Telegraph have yet to materialize.