Facebook Sets Expiration Date for Controversial Ad Feature


Come early spring and Facebook will shut down a controversial ad feature that got the company in legal trouble over privacy.

In a message posted in the company’s forum for developers, the social network said that it would sunset the ad program, known as Sponsored Stories, on April 9.

For users who don’t want their names or pictures used in ads at all, the change will appear largely cosmetic.

Sponsored Stories, which the company launched in 2011, created a social endorsement for ads. If a Facebook user liked a company’s product or checked into a restaurant, that action along with the person’s profile picture could appear as an advertisement in their friends’ Facebook news feeds.

The feature rankled privacy advocates, who brought a class-action lawsuit against the company. The lawsuit argued that Facebook violated the privacy rights of minors by publishing their “likes” and profile pictures in advertisements without their consent.

Last August, after a protracted legal battle, a U.S. district judge approved a $20 million settlement in the case.

Facebook also changed its privacy policy in response to the case. Instead of cutting back on the social component in its ads, the company broadened its policy, telling users in August that all their data is fair game. The company said that a person’s face and “likes,” including those of minors, could be used in all advertisements on the social network.

The company reiterated that stance in a blog post on Facebook’s website on Thursday. While the Sponsored Stories feature would be killed, “Social context — stories about social actions your friends have taken, such as liking a page or checking in to a restaurant — is now eligible to appear next to all ads shown to friends on Facebook.”

For advertisers, that means that they can no longer design an ad whose main purpose is to showcase a Facebook user’s likes or check-ins to their friends. But they are free to put up ads for their products, in both news feeds and on the side panels of a Facebook pages, that include people’s likes and pictures – so long as they are not the main focus of the ad, says Facebook spokesman Tim Rathschmidt. “Today is when we let our ad partners know the exact date when they’ll no longer be able to buy sponsored stories,” he wrote in an email.

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