November 13, 2007
The past week has been fascinating. First the US Congress must has thought highly of my latest Halloween story. According to a report from Stephanie Kirchgaessner (*), it held a hearing to expose Yahoo as "spineless" for having helped China track dissidents. Poor Jerry Yang, Yahoo's CEO, must have forgotten to send a check to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, otherwise so keen, as Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane told us (1), to protect AT&T and Verizon from the legal consequences of suspiciously similar actions in the US. Truth this side of the Pacific, error beyond.
Second Michael Swaine (**) offered us free insight in our fight for privacy. "If I buy a digitally watermarked MP3 from Amazone and the publisher of the song later accuses me of stealing it, what is my proof of innocence? You mean, an invisible code that I can't read?" Instead of a "do-not-track" registry, an ineffective solution to counter the threats of personalized advertising, indeed lift the lid on secrecy and enable consumers to track the trackers (2). It would be an eye opener for some and Congress is not completely immune to the voters' wishes.
But let's face it. The unveiling of "Facebook Ads" stole the show. Louise Story (***) and Kevin Allison (****) have given us the essential facts. To simplify, advertisers set up pages to welcome their fans on Facebook. Become a fan of an advertiser and Facebook directs ads from this advertiser to all the friends in your network under cover of your very own photograph. Already Saul Hansell has relayed a warning that the practice may be illegal in New-York State (*****). But what should we make of it?
My gut reaction is that it is a clever idea. First it mirrors real life interactions, which is the goal of social networks. Everyone has at least one friend one cannot meet without being submitted to the retelling of his or her pet purchase. I suspect I have become myself a perfect bore, forever extolling how wonderful ePrio's eprivacy solutions truly are. Second, as Mark Zuckerberg says, "nothing influences a person more than a recommendation from a trusted friend" and Facebook will derive substantial revenues from advertisers. I see nothing wrong in a profitable business model.
Of course if the devil is not in advertising, he lies in the details. Depending on the exact terms adopted, the Facebook user may give a truly voluntary consent to lend his or her image or finds him or herself trapped into agreeing by some unacceptable bundling of options, e.g. "no contact possible with company X through Facebook without being pressed into its service".
But look beyond for the worst danger. Real life friends have much more control over their interactions than what I presume to be the case with Facebook. While a rich user is glad to talk about luxury items with friends equally well-off, he or she will not flaunt such an interest to his poorer friends, unless socially inept. Political and religious convictions are similarly shared with great care. To jettison this personalized attention is a sure recipe for ending "frienships". "No contact possible with friend X through Facebook without being vexed".
Will all Facebook fans be forced to flock to the Weather Channel lest they offend their friends?
- (*) ........... Yahoo apology over dissidents jailed in China, by Stephanie Kirchgaessner (Financial Times) - November 7, 2007
- (**) ........ Since You Didn't Ask, by Michael Swaine (Dr. Dobb's Journal) - December 2007
- (***) ...... Facebook Is Marketing Your Brand Preferences (With Your Permission), by Louise Story (New York Times) - November 7, 2007
- (****) ... Facebook in pursuit of 'fan-sumers', by Kevin Allison (Financial Times) - November 12, 2007
- (*****) . Facebook's Ads: Are They Illegal, by Saul Hansell (New York Times) - November 8, 2007
- (1) see 10/30/07 fillip: Phone Companies Seeking Immunity Gave to Senator, by Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane (New York Times) - October 22, 2007
- (2) see the comments to the Federal Trade Commission I sent in response to its public inquiry on "Ehavioral Advertising"