How Facebook plans to track users’ TV habits

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

July 16, 2014

We reported a couple of months ago on how Facebook planned to add passive listening to its mobile apps, so that it can listen in on users surroundings to determine what they are watching or listening to, and update their status accordingly.

The move alarmed privacy campaigners, even though Facebook promised not to store any information collected in this way. The Washington Post yesterday however published details that somewhat contradict this, in a report on what Facebook plans to do with the data.

Facebook has teamed up with Nielson Media Research, a TV ratings company that traditionally ‘puts boxes into about 25,000 [volunteer] households, and these boxes record the viewing habits of every member of the household.’ From last year it also started tracking online habits too.

As part of the partnership, Nielson will aggregate information on shows Facebook users watch, collected through the Facebook app, and accompanied by basic non-personally identifiable information, such as the users’ age and gender.

Cheryl Idell, an executive vice president of Nielson, explains the reasons for this move,

The world is shifting radically, and so we had to evolve our measurement so that we could capture all of this fragmented viewing.

Importantly, people are increasingly consuming TV not just through their living-room TV sets, but on their laptops, tablets, and even on their phones when sitting on the bus. With television advertising being a $65 billion a year business in the US alone, and online digital ad revenue expected to grow 40% this year to $6 billion, the stakes are very high. As Lyle Schwartz, a managing partner of the advertising behemoth Group M told the LA Times,

Americans are using more devices than ever before to watch video content, and the number of content producers has proliferated. That fragments the audience.’ On the other hand, ‘it also gives advertisers the ability to target their messages.

The partnership with Facebook will allow Nielson to gain an insight into demographics and digital viewing habits, allowing advertisers to target ads more effectively.

Facebook is of course keen to claim that the partnership will not damage users’ privacy,

We have worked with Nielsen under strong privacy principles. We don’t believe that audience measurement systems should be used to adjust targeting; they should only be used for measurement. This protects the privacy of people viewing ads and ensures that both advertisers and publishers have the same information about the audiences.

This has left privacy campaigners unimpressed however. Julia Horwitz, a consumer protections counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center said,

Consumers really are not aware of the extent to which Facebook is putting their non-Facebook activity to use. Watching television and surfing the Internet shouldn’t necessarily involve Facebook.

Perhaps even more worrying, is news that Facebook is clearly planning to expand further into the world of online statistics, as it has recently acquired LiveRail for around $500 million, a new company that specializes advertisement targeting.

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