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New Facebook, MySpace ad programs prompt FTC complaint


By Wendy Davis

C-Net News
November 12, 2007

NEW AD PROGRAMS ON SOCIAL networking sites Facebook and MySpace are already drawing complaints from advocacy organizations Center for Digital Democracy and the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, which today will protest the sites' marketing plans to the FTC.

The influential groups intend to complain to Federal Trade Commission Chair Deborah Platt Majoras about new offerings for marketers unveiled last week, including Facebook's plan to allow marketers to use members as brand endorsers, and MySpace's expanded behavioral targeting program, which lets marketers target members based on information in their profiles.

In a letter to Majoras, the groups say the new offerings show "the advertising industry's intentions to move full-speed ahead without regard to ensuring consumers are protected." The organizations earlier this month renewed their call for an investigation, and are also asking the FTC to prohibit Web companies from tracking users online and serving them ads based on other sites visited without first obtaining consent.

Facebook revealed new ad platforms just days after the FTC convened a town hall meeting to address whether sending ads to consumers based on their online behavior violates people's privacy. With the new social ads, Facebook will tell members which of their online friends have signed up as fans of particular marketers. The company's Beacon program will inform Facebook users of their friends' off-site purchases, provided the friends agree to share that information.

In their letter to Platt, the advocacy groups specifically question whether these programs--Facebook's, as well as MySpace's expanded targeting--inappropriately focus on minors. "Since both Facebook and MySpace are working with fast-food clients," the letter states, "the connection between targeted advertising and the commission's ongoing and statutorily required study of youth and unhealthy products needs to be explored."

Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester 10 years ago spearheaded the Children's Online Protection and Privacy Act through Congress. That bill prohibits marketers from knowingly collecting information from children under 13 without their parents' permission. Facebook and MySpace both have policies banning users under 13 from joining the sites, but critics charge that children frequent such sites anyway.

The Center for Digital Democracy and U.S. PIRG last year filed a 50-page complaint about the growing use of behavioral targeting, saying the techniques are invasive and manipulative. "Consumers entering this new online world are neither informed of nor prepared for these technologies and techniques--including data gathering and mining, audience targeting and tracking--that render users all but defenseless before the sophisticated assault of new-media marketing," they argued in papers filed last year. The groups urge that companies should only use these techniques if consumers have affirmatively consented.


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