The two sides of Facebook intimacy

“It is not keyword. It is real identity,” Dan Neary, Facebook’s vice-president for Asia-Pacific, told me last week as he held forth on the social network’s business strategy to woo advertisers. If Yahoo ushered in display ads on the Internet and Google pioneered search-based ads, Facebook says your real conversations with friends and the interests you show in them and in the information you disclose bring advertisers closer to the targeted audience.

Kirthiga Reddy, Facebook’s India head, showed how the company, with its new mobile strategy, can track the handsets on which users surf the site, and try and sell an upgrade to the device.

Facebook has 1.2 billion users worldwide, growing at 20% a year. Neary says the company can target each individual while behaving like a huge media company. “We are onto one-on-one marketing at scale,” he says.

All this sounds very good for advertisers, but possibly eerie for users who feel they are being stalked.

Two days after I met the Facebook executives, I sat at a “Roundtable on Privacy” organised by the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society and Privacy International and others, discussing India’s proposed privacy law for data protection. Chantal Bernier, Canada’s assistant privacy commissioner, talked of how her nation’s efforts had altered Facebook’s policies to respect the privacy of individuals. 

If free speech activists and democracy lovers are cheering Facebook for the way it helps public discourse, there are those who hate Google and Facebook for breathing down their necks in some way.

I do believe both organisations respect privacy in principle and a lot is being done on that front. But what I am not sure about is how much users know in detail about the implications. Privacy settings given to users empower them, but they need to be told in advance perhaps about everything from how much their information is monitored to how “cookies” that track them work.

A media campaign to evangelise their respect for privacy might work better than after-thoughts, policy-tweaks and clarifications.


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