Last week was all about Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing. There’s no point in denying that Facebook gathers lots and lots of data about individual users. That being said, all kinds of companies and governmental organizations are more than willing to use that data to have successful Facebook campaigns. So, is Facebook evil for gathering that data? And if so, aren’t websites willing to give that information to Facebook not equally evil?
Regulation always lags behind
When radio first emerged, companies sponsored most of the programs. Programs were one big advertisement. We call it a soap opera because a large soap factory sponsored it! Gradually, broadcasters sold advertisements in blocks, during commercial breaks. While some countries have laws concerning advertisement and commercials, most countries have councils that provide guidelines on what is allowed in commercials and what not. Advertisers, media people, and audiences talk with each other and figure out what is allowed and what not. And I think that’s what we need to do with Facebook advertising as well. We need to think, talk and set up new rules for this advertising game. Together.
What is a tracking pixel?
A tracking pixel is an invisible 1×1 pixel on a website that records the activities of visitors. This pixel collects data about the visitor and shares it with, for instance, Facebook or Google. Often, visitors aren’t aware that the pixel is collecting their information and therefore there is quite a bit of criticism on this way of retrieving data.
The responsibility of companies
Facebook does not force a tracking pixel on websites. Nor does Google. And yet, lots of websites have one of each. That’s a choice. I am not saying it’s a wrong choice per se; I’m just saying it is a choice. And I do think that companies should take some time to think about the consequences of that choice. Do you want to use data gathered from people that visit your website to retarget these people on Facebook? You can’t be sure what Facebook does with that data, but you are handing it over to them.
At Yoast, we did have a Facebook tracking pixel on our website for some time. We did little with it. It did not feel right. It felt as like we were following our audience — stalking them. We discussed the use of the tracking pixel in our company and decided to remove it. This was long before the Facebook hearing.
Ignorance is no excuse
I am afraid lots of companies do not even know whether or not they have a tracking pixel. Marketing departments or agencies may have taken care of it without explaining how such a retargeting campaign works. I do think companies have a responsibility to know and to care. We are talking about collecting data on individuals; it’s valuable data of and about your visitors.
We should educate ourselves and our children. We all witness retargeting, so we should explain how it works. This is not rocket science. My 11-year old figured it out himself. He noticed advertising for the Fortnite computer game wasn’t on my Instagram timeline, while it appeared so very frequently on his. He wondered why. We should make a real effort to explain this stuff to children, to companies and governments. If people understand, we can have a meaningful conversation and raise the questions that matter.
Have the conversation
We have to raise ethical questions. What data are we allowed to collect from our audience? And with what purpose? Do we need to tell our audience about the tracking pixel on our website?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. Different people will come up with different answers. That’s the beauty of ethical questions. I am no expert, but you should read Morton Rand-Hendriksen’s’ article on using ethics in web design if you’re interested in this kind of stuff.
The bottom line is, we all need to think about it. We all need to talk about it. And in the end, we need to come to some consensus together. We need to make — and abide by — rules or laws to deal with these kinds of things.
So.. let’s talk!