Paul Baker/the Gauntlet

Editorial: The gap between connectivity and privacy

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In the information revolution, it's no wonder that now, more than ever, knowledge is one of the hottest commodities, with the sale of information becoming a very profitable business.

Earlier this week, both MySpace and Facebook unveiled new advertising campaigns that allow them to target specific forms of advertising at users based on keywords in their profiles. For many, this has caused a great deal of concern surrounding the privacy rights of users of the social networking websites.

Facebook has gotten a lot of bad press in the last year or so, as concern for the privacy of its users has come into public debate. Though it seems natural to object to Facebook and MySpace moving toward these forms of advertising, they're not in business to lose money. Of course they're going to innovate in new forms of advertising. It makes perfect economic sense. News Corp. has reported a 300 per cent increase in the effectiveness of their advertisements since the implementation of the new system on MySpace, and no one can argue with that kind of performance.

Sure, it's a little concerning to think that advertisements are being targeted toward Internet users based on the contents of their profiles, but that's the direction in which the market is moving. They earn this profit while providing a service that people enjoy free of charge. Sort of.

Facebook is free in that there is no direct monetary cost to its users. Instead, users of Facebook give up their names, interests, work and education history, political and religious views, sexual orientation, relationship status, friends, and a variety of other information contained in the typical user profile.

Through the use of their network system, Facebook blocks access to individual profiles based on geographic location, place of employment or educational institution. The rationale is this will cut down on third-party search engines gathering information on Facebook users for their own ends. Unfortunately, the thrust of this claim is weakened by the applications platform that Facebook implemented in Mar. 2007, which allows third parties to develop programs that, if added to user profiles, allow them to collect information on Facebook users, presumably for market research. While it is unlikely to be the case that all applications on Facebook are being used in such a way, the reality is that most of them probably are.

The real concern shouldn't be whether or not social network users are being fed advertisements. If it isn't being done through data mining, it'd be done through the bombardment of products being shoved down the throats of consumers. Although it's certainly off-putting, the really frightening thing is that we know this information and choose to do nothing about it.

In this economy of information, market research has to come from somewhere, and it is ultimately up to the end user whether Facebook's methods of revenue generation are acceptable. But when is enough enough? At the end of the day, social network users must decide whether or not they are comfortable with and willing to disclose that much of their information for the ends of the individual platform developers.