Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

About-Face: How Mark Zuckerberg Learned to Love Cookies

The Facebook Exchange is designed to boost the social network’s revenue by letting marketers use the same targeting tools they use all over the Web.

This might be important for Facebook and its ad buyers, and the ad tech companies that will work on the project. And for the Web publishers who will be competing for Facebook’s ad dollars.

But for most users, it shouldn’t register, because they’re used to the idea: If you visit an online shoe store, you might find yourself stalked by shoe ads, enabled by Web targeting “cookies,” when you head to other sites.

No big deal, right?

Depends on who you ask.

Here, via ZDNet, is a transcript of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg talking about targeting and cookies with Charlie Rose last fall. I’m running a long stretch so you get the full context:

Mark Zuckerberg: I mean, when you’re saying that we’re the light, it’s because, sure people have a lot of information on Facebook. But that’s information that they’ve put into the service.

Sheryl Sandberg: Exactly.

Mark Zuckerberg: If you look at companies, whether it’s Google or Yahoo or Microsoft, right, that have search engines and ad networks, they also have a huge amount of information about you. It’s just that they’re collecting that about you behind your back, really. And it’s like you’re going — you’re going around the Web, and they have cookies, and they’re collecting this huge amount of information about who you are. But you never know that. And I mean, some of these companies make an effort to give you a product where —

Charlie Rose: But do you find that a bit scary?

Mark Zuckerberg: Well, I just — I think it’s — it’s just less transparent —

Sheryl Sandberg: There’s no light.

Mark Zuckerberg: — than what’s happening on Facebook.

Sheryl Sandberg: It’s the dark.

Mark Zuckerberg: So on Facebook someone wants to —

Sheryl Sandberg: Contact.

Mark Zuckerberg: — target say, okay, I want to — I want to advertise —–like I’m a band, and I’m to coming to the Bay Area, I’m going to advertise to people who like a band, and they’re going to — those people only fit if they’ve put in that they like that band.

Charlie Rose: Right.

Mark Zuckerberg: On those other services, you can still do that kind of advertising, but you’re going to find people based on what they’ve browsed around on the Web and the people have little or no control over the information that a company like Google or Yahoo or Microsoft has about you. And, I don’t know, I think that some of those companies have made an effort to give people to give a page that they can go see all information that the company has about them. But, I mean, very few people are actually going to go do that. So in reality I think that these companies with big ad networks are basically getting away with collecting huge amounts of information, likely way more information than people are sharing on Facebook about themselves. But I think because people can see how much information people are sharing about themselves on Facebook —

Sheryl Sandberg: Yes.

Mark Zuckerberg: it appears scarier. But in reality, you have control over every single thing that you’ve shared on Facebook.

That was then. Now, Facebook says, it’s just fine to “find people based on what they’ve browsed around on the Web.”

Some caveats:

  • Facebook says that once you find that you’ve been targeted with a cookie-enabled ad, you should be able to opt out of getting them in the future. This kind of opt-out usually turns out to be quite cumbersome and non-intuitive in real life, but we can reserve judgement until we see how Facebook handles it in the near future.
  • Much more important is that Facebook says it won’t let advertisers mix the data they collect about you from outside of Facebook with the stuff that Facebook learns about you on its own. Advertisers will either have to pick the cookie targeting method, using data they collect outside of the social network, or Facebook’s original method, based on the information it gleans about you from within its walls.

I also checked in with Facebook PR rep Brandon McCormick, who wanted to make two more points:

  • Facebook’s plan is to only let advertisers use a single cookie to target you, and it won’t be able to hang on to the tracking information once it has served you the ad. That is, advertisers won’t be able to build up an entire portfolio about you by combining data from multiple visits to multiple sites.
  • Facebook wants to make it clear that it’s not collecting the cookie data that advertisers are using — it’s just letting them serve ads with that data.

And again, for many — likely most — users, none of this will be an issue, because they’re used to seeing targeted ads, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

But this is still a turnaround for Facebook. Last fall, it disdained Web targeting. Now it wants to profit from it.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work