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Concerns about Facebook Privacy Controls

More than 600 million people have Facebook accounts and the company is trying to cash in on members' personal profile information and  friends page information and postings by sharing it with advertisers. Say, for example, you post that you love a romantic movie you just saw. Don't be surprised if you receive unsolicited advertisements from matchmaking organizations or other purveyors of romantic services. Facebook recently announced it is now tracking personal information and preferences and sending back to users online ads based on this information. My question is whether Facebook's open-ended policy of sharing profile and personal information is an ethical policy.

Facebook has been quoted as saying it does not disclose information that would allow advertisers to identify individual users, but filters them based on geography, age or specific interests. This seems to me to be a rationalization for an unethical action. The "filtered" data still could include e-mail contacts, without naming specific individuals, so long as the contacts in a group have the same interests. David Fischer, Facebook's vice president of advertising and global operations, has been quoted as saying: "When someone likes a brand, they are building a two-way conversation, creating an on-going relationship." Isn't it up to Facebook users to determine whether they want that relationship?

Facebook's use of personal information is a societal ethics issue with widespread implications because a third of all online display ads in the U.S. appear on Facebook, more than three times as many as appear on its closest competitor. Facebook flickr The Internet Advertising Bureau reported that fourth quarter 2010 revenues increased to a new high of $7.4 billion, a 19% increase over the same quarter in 2009. You can access the full report at: Moreover, IAB reported Full-Year Internet Ad Revenues for 2010 increased 15% to $26 Billion, a new record.

The other day I did a Google search on"multinationals complaints about doing business in India" to prepare for a lecture in my international accounting course. This was the first item that popped up: Problems Faced by Western Firms in Indian Market. I clicked on it and was routed to the website of Scribd.  The article on it was helpful, but I was concerned about the following statement at the very top: " We’re using Facebook to give you reading recommendations based on what your friends are sharing and the things you like. We've also made it easy to connect with your friends: you are now following your Facebook friends who are on Scribd, and they are following you! In the future you can access your account using your Facebook login and password." While scrolling down the paper I noticed ads popping up for Mrs. Pauls and Van de Kamp's fish products and Bertoli food/beverages. I went back to my Facebook personal page and saw that I had indicated one of my hobbies was eating. Now that's true. I like all kinds of food and can eat at any time of day. However, I'm not sure I want Mrs. Paul's and Bertoli to know about it.

Are there any solutions to the problem of who gains access to our personal information and preferences based on Facebook postings? Some have suggested greater government regulation. That's the last thing we need. The government can't regulate what it's supposed to. (Think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the investment banking industry; medicare fraud and so on). It used to be that an honorable business self-regulated its own behavior for the public good. Those days are long gone. The bottom line is we are responsible for what we post on our Facebook page. Unfortuantely, for all intents and purposes that means not using the service or living with the consequences of our actions that are dictated by Facebook's policies.

 Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, April 20, 2011