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Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Photo: Ludovic Toinel)

Privacy Groups Push Back Against Latest Facebook Tracking Scheme

International consumer advocacy coalition says web-tracking plan raises "deep alarm"

Deirdre Fulton

A transnational group of privacy and consumer advocates is calling on the Federal Trade Commission and the Irish Data Protection Commission to shut down Facebook's new web-tracking program, which it says violates established privacy agreements and in fact punishes users who are "most diligent about their privacy." 

In a letter (pdf) sent Tuesday, the London-based Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) — a network whose members include the US-based Center for Media and Democracy, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Citizen, as well as several European rights groups — expressed "deep alarm" about the "vast expansion" of Facebook's data collection practices, which the company announced in a blog post last month.

TACD describes the new policy:

Facebook already installs cookies and pixel tags on users’ computers to track browsing activity on and Facebook apps, however the proposed change would meant that those cookies and pixel tags will also track users’ browsing activity on any website that includes a few lines of Facebook code.

According to reporting in AdAge, Facebook said it would not honor do-not-track browser settings (as Twitter and Pinterest do), and would begin using browser histories and Facebook widgets on third-party sites to collect information to further target advertising. Users who don't want to be tracked were advised to opt-out using the third-party service Digital Advertising Alliance, or on mobile devices using iOS or Android controls. 

The TACD letter calls this "an imperfect opt-out method" that puts unnecessary onus on the user: "[E]ven consumers who work to exercise their ability to opt out must remain vigilant, even after taking the appropriate privacy precautions."

What's more, the whole scheme bears uncanny similarities to a controversial program Facebook attempted to roll out in 2007, TACD said.

Facebook’s proposed use of pixel tags to track users offline is almost identical to its 2007 Beacon program. Beacon similarly used 1x1 pixel GIF tags to track and transmit users’ browsing history—on non-Facebook websites—to Facebook’s own servers. Facebook users objected so strongly to Beacon that over 50,000 users signed a petition against the program within its first 10 days. Other users filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook for privacy violations. Facebook abandoned the program during the course of the lawsuit and publicly apologized, admitting that the program had been a mistake.

Facebook has now completely reversed its stance to the detriment of users of the service. Contrary to its prior representations, upon which users may have relied, the company will now routinely monitor the web browsing activities of its users and exploit that information for advertising purposes.
More than 132,000 people have signed onto a new petition in response to the latest revelations.

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