Facebook’s Mad Rush Toward Total Information Awareness

Hey, Mark Zuckerberg! You look like a billion bucks, buddy! Actually, make that 24 billion bucks.

Meanwhile, you, dear reader, look like … $125, give or take a few greenbacks.

Those numbers are based on The Wall Street Journal’s report last week that Facebook is finally getting serious about floating an IPO in the second quarter of 2012 that would value the company at $100 billion. Facebook CEO Zuckerberg holds a 24% stake in his company; Facebook says it has more than 800 million active users. If the $100 billion valuation holds but Facebook hits the billion-user mark — which seems entirely possible by next spring — the price per user will drop to roughly $100.

In other words, Mark Zuckerberg’s stock is rising, but yours sure isn’t.

Annoyingly, this IPO talk is happening just as Facebook seems ever more focused on, well, using its users in increasingly creepy ways. Zuckerberg has always talked a great, quasi-Utopian game about the psychosocial impact of his company — everything you do in life is better when it’s shared, is his basic shtick — but the truth is that for years now Facebook has been borderline abusive toward its users.

The social network cons us into thinking that we’re all unique, precious snowflakes, but Facebook sees its users as an aggregate, monetizable database, pure and simple. Which would be fine — to have our collective eyeballs sold to the highest bidders is part of the deal we make when we sign up for Facebook and pay $0 to use it — except that, as the Federal Trade Commission said last week in announcing a settlement with the company over privacy issues, Facebook “deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

In its detailed complaint against the company, the FTC really drilled down, pointing out that Facebook has repeatedly said that it “does not provide advertisers with information about its users. In truth and in fact … Facebook has provided advertisers with information about its users” — frighteningly specific information, including data that could be used to determine an advertising target’s real name. Facebook advertisers, the FTC said, could then “combine the user’s real name with any targeted traits used for the ad the user clicked (e.g., if the ad targeted 23-year-old men who were ‘Interested In’ men and ‘liked’ a prescription drug, the advertiser could ascribe these traits to a specific user).”

Per the terms of its settlement with the FTC, Facebook doesn’t have to pay a fine, but basically has to promise to behave.

The nonpunitive settlement is all the more galling when you consider that it addresses ancient (in Internet Time) violations dating back to 2008 — but Facebook has already moved far beyond all that. In a way, Facebook is so over itself. It’s already figured out pretty much all the ways it can and can’t get away with selling out its users within its own ecosystem, so now, with initiatives like its recently launched Seamless Sharing system, it’s finding new ways to pimp its users across the web.

The idea behind Seamless Sharing is that if you opt in to Facebook-connected services like Spotify and apps from the Washington Post, The Guardian and other media companies, whatever you’re listening to or reading automatically gets shared with your friends. (A cry for help from a Facebook user recently landed on Reddit’s homepage: “Fucking Spotify is telling everyone on Facebook that I’m listening to Pat Benatar. How do I undo this?”) Zuckerberg calls this process “frictionless,” but in practice it’s a radical transformation: Sharing on Facebook used to be human-driven; you shared by choice. Now Zuckerberg & Co. want to push mindless, automatic, machine-driven sharing on us, even if we all hate it.

Why? Because it’s in Facebook’s interest to keep constant tabs on us, wherever we may wander in the virtual world.

In the wake of the FTC settlement, Facebook will surely strive to be somewhat responsive in regard to letting people have some degree of control over their profiles and streams. But what does or doesn’t appear in your stream or your friends’ streams is sort of beside the point; behind the scenes, Facebook is now in the Total Information Awareness business.

TIA, as you may recall, was a post-9/11 project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; the idea was to allow the military to create a massive, all-seeing, all-knowing digital dossier about every U.S. resident as a means to sniff out terrorist threats. DARPA’s Information Awareness Office wanted to be able to collect any information it wanted without a warrant (i.e., it sought frictionless, seamless sharing!), but outcry over the blatant Big Brotheriness of it put the kibosh on TIA, at least as it was originally conceived.

Fast-forward to 2011. As it seeks to become a publicly traded company, Facebook is now intent on vacuuming up all the minutiae about our content consumption and interactions across the web. Not because your “friends” care about every last thing you do in cyberspace, but because Facebook is convinced that in aggregate, over time, that information is meaningful — to advertisers.

Given the FTC’s laughably toothless settlement, it’s clear that nothing can stop Facebook now in its quest for Total Information Awareness.

And its IPO will give it a $10 billion infusion of capital — which ain’t chump change. In fact, it’s impressive even by Department of Defense standards. Poor DARPA’s budget is just $3 billion a year.

Simon Dumenco is the “Media Guy” media columnist for Advertising Age.

Simon Dumenco of Ad Age