Facebook "sponsored stories" in timeline violate your privacy?

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When is advertising not advertising? When Facebook says so, apparently. It's a tale of a PR car-crash in the making. It speaks volumes about Facebook's attitude, about how much it really cares about your privacy, in The Long View...

As you may know, if you click Like on a brand's page, your name and photo may be displayed to other users, as part of an advertisement. That brand will of course pay Facebook for the privilege. So if you clicked Like on Coca-Cola's page, I might see your name and face as part of an advertisement for The Great Taste of Coke. Since when were you a paid spokesperson for sugar water?

Is that reasonable behavior? As Facebook's VP of Public Policy, Elliot Schrage, puts it:

Well, it... I-I-I-I suppose, when you s...
So let's pause...
[Long silence]
That's an interesting...
[Another silence]
Y-y-y-you're asking a profound question: What's advertising?"

This was in an interview broadcast on British TV a few days ago. (Note that I've cut out a section of background chatter that the BBC dropped into the interview; the edit is where it fades through white.)

BBC interviewer Emily Maitlis' jaw practically hits the floor when she realizes the PR car-crash that's unfolding.

Think about what's happening here: The guy in charge of public policy hasn't even considered what the policy or position should be about this kind of advertising.

He seems oblivious to the fact that people might object when they discover their identities are being used to advertise products without their consent.

And not even with any way to opt-out. [See update below for how to possibly stop your actions becoming advertisements.] 

After he recovers his composure, Schrage blathers on about how people are making a choice to publicly endorse the brand. Or rather:

When I press a Like button...I'm affirmatively communicating that I'm associating myself with whatever I'm liking.

I wouldn't have believed it, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears (and if anyone can be trusted to edit an interview fairly, it's Auntie BBC). Wow; just wow.

People often describe Facebook as "evil", but on the strength of this interview, perhaps they're just dumb?

Thanks to my Google+ chums for a stimulating discussion.

UPDATE: You can supposedly opt-out of sponsored stories using this link. However, this is contradicted by a Help page that says there is no way to opt out of seeing all or being featured in any Sponsored Stories!

[Hat tip for first link: Craig Nichols; for second: Graham Cluley]

What do you think? Leave a comment below...

Richi Jennings, blogger at large

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. As well as The Long View, he's also the creator and main author of Computerworld's IT Blogwatch -- for which he has won American Society of Business Publication Editors and Jesse H. Neal awards on behalf of IDG Enterprise. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email: TLV@richij.com. You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.  

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