Facebook to Let Users Alter Their Ad Profiles

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SAN FRANCISCO — If you have ever wondered why Facebook showed you that advertisement for a new iPhone game or a cheap flight to Bermuda, you will soon be able to find out.

Facebook announced on Thursday that it is going to give its users the ability to see the dossiers of likes and interests it keeps on them, as well as the ability to change, add or delete information in those files. And if you don’t like an ad, you will be able to tell the social network what types of marketing messages you would rather see.

But even as the social network gives its users more insight into the data it collects on them, it said it would also begin adding even more details to their profiles gleaned from watching what they do on other websites and from their smartphone apps. Users can opt out of such extended tracking, but they will have to visit a special ad industry website and adjust their smartphone settings to do so.

The additional tracking immediately raised the hackles of privacy advocates, who warned that the end result will be a Facebook that knows more about its users than ever before and uses that information to sell products to them.

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With Facebook’s new feature, every ad on the service will have a tiny arrow in the right corner that users can click on to find out why they were targeted with that particular one. Credit Facebook

“The privacy announcements today are a political smokescreen to enable Facebook to engage in more data gathering,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group that promotes privacy rights. “They claim to protect user privacy at the same time as they work to undermine it.”

Detailed tracking of people’s digital activities has become commonplace. Other big companies like Google and Yahoo, as well as data brokers and small players that most people have never heard of, scoop up data on people’s online, and even offline, activities to develop detailed profiles that are used to market products.

Consumers are largely unaware of the monitoring and often don’t know how to limit it. Both the Federal Trade Commission and the White House recently called on Congress to pass legislation that would better protect such private data, including requiring companies to give people more control over the digital files collected on them.

The F.T.C., which was briefed on the company’s plans, declined to comment.

For Facebook, giving users a bit more control over their data even while collecting more information about them could be smart business.

Companies are likely to buy more ads and pay higher prices if they know that their pitches are reaching a receptive audience, and the audience is more likely to be receptive if the ad is relevant to them.

“The thing that we have heard from people is that they want more targeted advertising,” said Brian Boland, Facebook’s vice president in charge of ads product marketing. “The goal is to make it clear to people why they saw the ad.”

Right now, the company’s marketing profiles are based mostly on people’s activities on Facebook, such as liking brand pages or sharing a funny ad. That record of user interests is the basis of ad targeting on the social network. For example, an auto advertiser like Toyota might pay to, say, reach 30-something men in the United States who like Ford and S.U.V.s.

Facebook is now simultaneously inviting users to improve the accuracy of its existing list of their interests while it adds to that list from other sources.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about data,” said Debra Aho Williamson, who studies social media for the research firm eMarketer. “Marketers want more data to be able to target people. And Facebook wants more data to make the advertising as relevant as possible.”

Facebook began informing its American users about the changes on Thursday, and they will receive access to their profiles within the next few weeks. The company said it would introduce similar access to other users around the world in coming months.

Although Facebook will now give its users a way to modify the customer profiles that drive the ads they see, users cannot completely get rid of ads. If people were to delete everything Facebook had collected about them, they would simply see more generic pitches based on other information that they have given Facebook, like their location, gender and age.

Most other big Internet companies already allow consumers to see, change or block some of the personal attributes that they use to deliver ads. Last year, the data broker Acxiom also began allowing people to see at least a portion of the profiles it had collected on them.

But Facebook will be the first major Internet company to show consumers how a specific ad for, say, a new television, is linked to a particular assessment of their interests, such as a fondness for electronics.

Every ad will have a tiny arrow in the right corner. If you click on that, then choose “Why am I seeing this?” Facebook will tell you the most important attribute about you that led it to show the ad.

You will also be able to click through to your full marketing dossier, or what Facebook calls your ad preferences, and see all of the attributes that Facebook believes describe you. Typically, those attributes will be a mix of general interests, like coffee or house music, and more specific ones, such as the coffee brand Illy and the rapper Kesha. Users can change, delete or add to the information in their files.

Facebook already offers a way to block ads from a particular advertiser, by clicking on the arrow on the top right of an ad and choosing the option to hide all ads from that brand.

Facebook executives hope that people will choose to improve the accuracy of the information, although people concerned about their privacy could just as easily fill their profiles with fake information.

Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said that Facebook’s users would be tempted to share even more about themselves with the company. “Who in his right mind wouldn’t want relevant ads over irrelevant ads?” he said.

And that will make Facebook, already one of the fastest-growing advertising companies on the Internet, more powerful than ever. “It’s more likely to help Facebook than you,” Mr. Turow said.

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