Facebook says it will pull from more user data, including browsing histories, to better target ads to consumers. As the changes roll out over the next few weeks, users will also have more control over their own data profiles, the ones that help determine which ads they see.
Ads on the site were already targeted to users based on individuals' activity on the site: for instance, what a person "liked" on Facebook. But starting soon, Facebook said Thursday, targeting will also "include information from some of the websites and apps you use." This would make ads more relevant to users' interests, the company says.
Facebook already collects this browsing data, reports the The New York Times; until now, it hasn't been included in the website's ad targeting.
The company also announced it will allow users to edit their own profiles. A new "Why am I seeing this?" option will appear in the dropdown menu on ads (accessible from an arrow in the top-right corner).
This "ad preferences" tool will explain why that ad was targeted to an individual user and allow him or her to remove that part of the data profile
For example, Facebook says, browsing the Internet for TVs might cause Facebook to identify you as "interested in Televisions." If ads for home entertainment systems are growing tiresome, you could remove TVs from your ad preferences — and if you'd rather see a different sort of ad, you could choose a different interest to add to your profile.
It's also possible to opt out of Facebook's new ad targeting entirely, by visiting a separate website and using built-in controls in smartphones and tablets.
However, the company notes, removing preferences or opting out of targeting won't change the total number of ads users see. And users who carefully edit their profile might continue to see ads that have nothing to do with their interests, such as ads aimed at broad audiences.
Marc Rotenberg, the president and executive director of online privacy advocacy group EPIC, says that the ability to opt out doesn't mitigate the group's concerns about the new rules. "It puts all the burden back on the user who doesn't want to be profiled to opt out," Rotenberg says. "We don't think that's fair."
More fundamentally, EPIC believes that the new rules violate a 2011 settlement agreement between Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission. That consent order, among other restrictions, required Facebook to submit to independent audits of its privacy practices for 20 years and to protect users' privacy more comprehensively.
Rotenberg says it's not just privacy advocates who are skeptical of ad targeting programs. He noted that a recent survey by Consumer Reports found that 85 percent of online consumers are unwilling to trade personal data in exchange for more relevant ads.
The changes to Facebook's policy will mean more tracking — and the burden is on users to block ads. But privacy advocate Todd Ruback, with Ghostery, tells NPR's Aarti Shahani that he's happy with Facebook in one key respect: It is making choices clear for users.
"Really, the issue with consumers is tell me about it first," Ruback says. "Let me know so I can decide whether or not it's appropriate for me."
Social media researcher Debra Aho Williamson told The New York Times that some users might appreciate Facebook's new personalization.
"For some people, they're going to appreciate that I'm seeing ads for cars because I'm shopping for cars," Williamson said. "And other people will get weirded out by that."