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Facebook: Our targeted ads aren't creepy

In a statement prepared for a House hearing on behavioral advertising, the social network highlights the privacy controls that members have over their personal information.

Facebook's targeted advertising program is "materially different from behavioral targeting as it is usually discussed," Chris Kelly, the social network's chief privacy officer, said in remarks prepared for a Thursday morning hearing before two House subcommittees.

"In offering its free service to users, Facebook is dedicated to developing advertising that is relevant and personal without invading users' privacy, and to giving users more control over how their personal information is used in the online advertising environment," read the remarks for two subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The hearing, titled "Behavioral Advertising: Industry Practices And Consumers' Expectations," was also slated to include testimonies from Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy; Scott Cleland, president of Precursor; Charles Curran, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative; Edward Felten, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University; Anne Toth, vice president of policy and head of privacy at Yahoo; and Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel at Google.

Chris Kelly

Kelly, a White House staffer under President Clinton, has announced an exploratory bid to run for attorney general in California.

Social-media sites like Facebook, where members fill out extensive personal profiles that can detail everything from their music tastes to travel plans to political leanings, are at the forefront of new developments in behavioral ad targeting. The Facebook Ads program lets advertisers fine-tune their campaigns to reach specific demographics and audiences. Kelly insisted that this does not constitute an invasion of user privacy, an Internet-wide concern that the Federal Trade Commission has been exploring at the request of privacy advocates.

"The FTC's behavioral advertising principles recognize the important distinctions made by Facebook in its ad targeting between the use of aggregate, non-personally identifiable information that is not shared or sold to third parties," Kelly's remarks read, "versus other sites' and companies surreptitious harvesting, sharing and sale of personally identifiable information to third party companies."

Privacy concerns are nothing new to Facebook. The social network went through a user backlash over the introduction of its News Feed in 2006, and a bigger one over the controversial Beacon advertising program. More recently, a revision to Facebook's terms of use prompted consumer advocacy blog The Consumerist to highlight language that it said meant that Facebook claimed ownership of user profile data and photos.

"In February of this year, we looked to revise our Terms of Use, simplifying them to cut out as much legalese as possible and explain them in plain language," Kelly's remarks explained. "When we released a first version of our new terms, a blog misinterpreted our simplification of our copyright license, claiming that it meant we were seeking to own user content. The user reaction was predictably swift and severe, and we needed to choose among weathering the storm, revising the language, and introducing an entirely new process that would directly involve users in the governance of the site."

Facebook ultimately underwent a "notice and comment period modeled in part on the federal government's rulemaking procedure...(with) a user vote at the end of the process."

The points he tried to drive home the most: that Facebook members have extensive control over their personal information and that Facebook does not allow advertisers access to "personally identifiable" data in the Facebook Ads program.

Kelly also included a general mea culpa of sorts: "Perhaps because our site has developed so quickly, Facebook may have sometimes been inartful in communicating with our users and the general public about our advertising products," he stated. "We learned many lessons about the importance of user education and extensive control from the imperfect introduction of our Beacon product in 2007. As a result, Facebook continues to be dedicated to empowering consumers to control their information in both the noncommercial and the commercial context because we believe that should be the future of advertising."

A few other interesting tidbits from Kelly's remarks: out of Facebook's 200-million-plus active users, about 65 million are in the U.S.; more than 10,000 sites are using the Facebook Connect universal log-in product; and Facebook plans to continue the discussion-and-feedback-period strategy on any future changes to its "critical site documents."