In his weekly “Stories I’d Like to See” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
Facebook’s landmark IPO filing suggests lots of meaty stories. Among them:
1. Facebook, third parties and data security:
Embedded in the typically long recitation of “risk factors” designed to shield IPO issuers from shareholder suits should things go wrong is a section of the prospectus that warns:
Our efforts to protect the information that our users have chosen to share using Facebook may be unsuccessful due to the actions of third parties If these third parties or Platform developers fail to adopt or adhere to adequate data security practices or fail to comply with our terms and policies, or in the event of a breach of their networks, our users’ data may be improperly accessed or disclosed. Any incidents involving unauthorized access to or improper use of the information of our users could damage our reputation and our brand and diminish our competitive position. In addition, the affected users or government authorities could initiate legal or regulatory action against us in connection with such incidents, which could cause us to incur significant expense and liability or result in orders or consent decrees forcing us to modify our business practices .
Not explained here is what protective mechanisms Facebook has to prevent these kinds of third-party security breaches and other abuses. Is the privacy and data protection of Facebook users only as strong as the weakest link among these third parties? Is there an Internet equivalent of the Gulf oil spill out there waiting to happen, after which Facebook points fingers at these third parties?
2. Facebook and the ad business:
The prospectus summarizes Facebook’s revenue machine this way: “We offer advertising solutions that are designed to be more engaging and relevant for users in order to help advertisers better achieve their goals.” Or, as The New York Times put it: “Every time a person shares a link, listens to a song, clicks on one of Facebook’s ubiquitous ‘like’ buttons, or changes a relationship status to ‘engaged,’ a morsel of data is added to Facebook’s vast library. It is a siren to advertisers hoping to leverage that information to match their ads with the right audience They reveal to the company not only their names (Facebook prohibits pseudonyms) and hometowns, but also their friends and family members and their tastes on everything from pop music to politics Facebook offers advertisers a giant basket of information so they can find precisely the audience they covet: a Boston woman who posts that she is ‘engaged’ may be offered an ad for a wedding photographer on her Facebook page Similarly, every press of a “like” button on Facebook signals a consumer’s preferences and shapes the ads that are shown.”
That was a good overview. But I’ve been waiting for a story that goes much further and lays out, with real numbers, how services like Facebook and Google—whose search advertising immediately targets people whose searches indicate they are interested in what the advertiser is selling—have changed the economics of advertising and threaten to crush competitors in more traditional media.
Here’s how to do that story: Assume you have two big advertisers — say Chevy Volt cars and Delta Air Lines. Then take five different kinds of media: NBC broadcast television, The New York Times, Time, Facebook and Google. Then take the exact cost in advertising dollars it will take to reach a thousand potential buyers of Chevy Volts and Delta plane rides in each of those media. But then add another, all-important factor: how targeted will those ad purchases be—meaning that if a thousand people see an ad on an NBC show, how likely are they to be people actually interested in buying a car anytime soon, or flying somewhere that Delta flies? What you’ll be able to measure (and add color to by interviewing Chevy’s and Delta’s ad buyers) is the cost per thousand likely buyers of the product—not just potential buyers, likely or not.
The exercise, I expect, will leave the old media in the dust when it comes to cost per likely buyers. They’ll only be able to defend their ad products by arguing—perhaps accurately, but with no data to prove it—that being on the back cover of Time strengthens brand awareness and image.
Next, do the same exercise comparing the cost per thousand likely customers for a car dealer or restaurant to advertise in the local newspaper or on the local television station in Columbus, Ohio, versus using Facebook or Google to reach the same people. My guess, by the way, is that Google’s search ads will still be the best buy in terms of cost per thousand likely customers because search ads reach people at exactly the moment they’re searching for the product being sold.
Then, there’s the flip side of the story: How does Facebook’s economic model for this kind of targeted marketing actually affect the privacy of us targets? There has been lots reported about this, but I’m still waiting for a story—in plain English—that explains exactly what the vulnerabilities are. What exactly can Facebook do or not do with our personal information? Can it sell or provide our email addresses or even our names to its marketing clients? Can Facebook send targeted e-mails or messages to us on behalf of clients, which might be just as annoying or compromising? Or can Facebook only put the clients’ ads on Facebook pages that we view? I know they say they won’t ever sell anything that actually identifies individuals by name, but what are all the ways they monetize personal information? And are our names available if the information is subpoenaed—or hacked, or abused by those “third parties” described above? What about Google?
While we’re at it, a story like this should add some perspective by comparing what Facebook or Google do with names and personal information to how credit card companies monetize personal data having to do with their account holders’ buying habits. Isn’t American Express, for example, as much in the data business as Facebook?
3. Facebook and the threat of mobile:
One of the most interesting sections of the prospectus is this entry in the section under “risk factors”:
Growth in use of Facebook through our mobile products, where we do not currently display ads, as a substitute for use on personal computers may negatively affect our revenue and financial results We anticipate that the rate of growth in mobile users will continue to exceed the growth rate of our overall MAUs [monthly average users] for the foreseeable future Although the substantial majority of our mobile users also access and engage with Facebook on personal computers where we display advertising, our users could decide to increasingly access our products primarily through mobile devices. We do not currently directly generate any meaningful revenue from the use of Facebook mobile products, and our ability to do so successfully is unproven. Accordingly, if users continue to increasingly access Facebook mobile products as a substitute for access through personal computers, and if we are unable to successfully implement monetization strategies for our mobile users, our revenue and financial results may be negatively affected
There is no guarantee that popular mobile devices will continue to feature Facebook, or that mobile device users will continue to use Facebook rather than competing products. We are dependent on the interoperability of Facebook with popular mobile operating systems that we do not control, such as Android and iOS, and any changes in such systems that degrade our products’ functionality or give preferential treatment to competitive products could adversely affect Facebook usage on mobile devices. Additionally, in order to deliver high quality mobile products, it is important that our products work well with a range of mobile technologies, systems, networks, and standards that we do not control. We may not be successful in developing relationships with key participants in the mobile industry or in developing products that operate effectively with these technologies, systems, networks, or standards
In other words, people are increasingly going to Facebook through their mobile devices, which reflects a general shift toward accessing content through smartphones and tablets. The problem is that advertising on those devices is harder to sell because it is harder to display. Equally important, it’s harder to integrate if you don’t control the mobile devices’ operating systems. And the operating systems that control the most important of those devices—Android and iOs—are controlled by Facebook’s key rivals: Google and Apple. The New York Times had a good story Monday on the general challenge of selling advertising on mobile devices that keys off of this Facebook disclosure in its IPO, but it seems there’s a good story out there for whoever can scope out if and how Google and Apple could and might take advantage of Facebook’s vulnerability.
4. Facebook and litigation:
Another part of the “risks” section says:
We are involved in numerous class action lawsuits and other litigation matters that are expensive and time consuming, and, if resolved adversely, could harm our business, financial condition, or results of operations. In addition to intellectual property claims, [these suits include] numerous other lawsuits, including putative class action lawsuits brought by users and advertisers, many of which claim statutory damages, and we anticipate that we will continue to be a target for numerous lawsuits in the future.
The prospectus goes on to say that the company doesn’t believe that any of these suits will result in material losses, and it’s true that any large, successful company is the target of all kinds of attacks from plaintiffs’ lawyers. Still, someone ought to do a story homing in on the cases that are potentially most threatening, telling us what they’re about and what the consequences, if any, might be. Are they real, or do they simply illustrate abuses of the plaintiffs’ bar?