Facebook's new ad sales plan raises hackles in Germany

Facebook users who really want to avoid being targeted by ads should get an ad blocker, German consumer organizations said

As Facebook began rolling out a global advertising network on Monday that will capitalize on all it knows from tracking users across the web, German consumer organizations immediately raised their voices in protest.

Called Atlas, the new ad network is supposed to allow advertisers to use Facebook's detailed knowledge about its users to reach their desired customers across devices and target ads at them across apps and websites.

"The secret behind Atlas is the so-called cross-device functionality," said the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV). It allows Facebook to track users whether they use a smartphone, laptop, tablet or PC.

In contrast to Google which mainly uses cookies to track users, Facebook often knows more about its users due to the combination of "like" data and completed user profiles, the VZBV said. Besides having a user's real name in most cases, Facebook also often knows age, place of residence and level of education. These are all of high value to advertisers, the VZBV said, as advertisers seek to target very specific sets of users.

The Atlas group at Facebook says it allows advertisers to connect online campaign data with offline sales. That connection is probably based on a system with consumer loyalty cards containing email addresses and phone numbers, the VZBV said.

"Even though Facebook says it will deliver only anonymous data without names to advertisers, this almost continuous monitoring should leave many customers with an uncomfortable feeling, " they said, adding that with such detailed profiles real anonymity can hardly be maintained.

Another indication that people may be resisting ad-based approaches like Facebook's is the high number of applications for the ad-free social network Ello that launched Friday. Interest in that new social network could well be spurred as a result of Facebook's "legendary bad reputation when it comes to privacy and user friendliness," the German consumer organizations said.

And while Facebook offers an opt-out for targeted ads, the option does not work across browsers and devices, a practice which the VZBV called absurd. Moreover, if a user clears the cookies in a browser after opting out, Facebook forgets the user opted out of targeted ads.

For people who want to escape targeted advertising completely, probably only an ad blocker will help, VZBV said.

Clients of advertising and marketing company Omnicom, which include Pepsi and Intel, are among the first testing the new platform.

Facebook wants to enable what it calls "people-based marketing and measurement" beyond Facebook, across devices and connect online and offline marketing, according to a Facebook spokeswoman. "We do all of this while protecting people's privacy and giving them control," she said, adding that people can opt-out from Atlas' ad targeting if they wish.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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