Facebook has never been shy about collecting its users' personal information and selling it to advertisers. But soon the social network will take information about other websites its users view while logged into Facebook and use that data to display ads, targeted at individual users, on Facebook itself.
Facebook says that with this change, users will only see advertisements highly relevant to their personal interests. Privacy advocates counter that Facebook is unduly impinging on users' privacy.
In its announcement today (June 12) Facebook also said it will no longer honor "Do not track" requests, a browser setting in which the pages you view are asked not to store information about your visit. However, if you find this extra tracking to be more nosy than helpful, there are still ways you can avoid it.
As a trade-off, Facebook is also giving users the ability to view the profiles that Facebook creates about their likes and preferences, and to add, delete or edit those preferences. This, the company says, gives users greater control over the advertisements they see within Facebook's Web pages and apps.
Facebook explained in a company blog post that the new advertising will work like this: "Say that you're thinking about buying a new TV, and you start researching TVs on the web and in mobile apps. We may show you ads [within Facebook] for deals on a TV."
Previously, Facebook could only track users' behavior on Facebook itself, such as which user pages you liked or links you viewed, although advertisers on Facebook could use information they had collected on you from other sites to create personalized Facebook ads for individual users.
Plenty of online marketers already track people across multiple websites in order to create extremely detailed preference profiles on them. But Facebook is far bigger and more widely-known than most of these companies, so its decision may have strong industry repercussions.
It's also significant that Facebook will do this profiling even if users have "Do not track" enabled. Most browsers let users enable a "Do not track," so that all Web traffic is sent with an HTTP header asking the sites not to log the length of your visit, your geographic location and which subpages or items you viewed. However, it's entirely up to websites whether to honor "Do not track" requests.
Facebook will no longer honor "Do not track" requests, the company announced Thursday, saying this is partially due to a lack of standardization among major Internet companies about how to treat them. (The company will still honor "Do not track" requests on its mobile apps.)
By way of context, Twitter and Pinterest do still honor "Do not track" requests. Yahoo and Google — which itself tracks users logged into Gmail or YouTube, and then displays ads based on their behavior — do not.
If you don't want Facebook to track your Web activity, you can choose to opt out via the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising. On iOS and Android versions of Facebook, users will also be able to go into the app's settings and disable the tracking.
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.