Over the weekend, Uncrunched pointed to a blog post of mine (Facebook denies cookie tracking allegations) to underline a specific quote. "Facebook does not track users across the web," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Right below, the blog pointed to a patent from the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) titled "Communicating Information in a Social Network System about Activities from Another Domain."
Here's the abstract:
In one embodiment, a method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain. The method includes maintaining a profile for each of one or more users of the social networking system, each profile identifying a connection to one or more other users of the social networking system and including information about the user. The method additionally includes receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the third-party website. The method additionally includes logging the actions taken on the third-party website in the social networking system, each logged action including information about the action. The method further includes correlating the logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to the one or more users on the third-party website as well as correlating the logged actions with a user of the social networking system.
Although the patent doesn't say that the assignee is Facebook, it does mention three inventors. A quick check on LinkedIn shows that all three of them work for the social networking giant: Kent Schoen, Gregory Dingle, and Timothy Kendall.
Still, I wanted to be absolutely sure, so I contacted Facebook and confirmed that this patent does indeed belong to the company. Facebook filed for the patent on February 8, 2011. It was granted on September 22, 2011.
Uncrunched's implication was that while Facebook said it is not tracking users on third-party websites, it has patented just such a method. I contacted Palo Alto for clarification, and here's what I heard back.
"Some people have suggested that this application is intended to patent tracking of logged out users," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, a careful reading of the portion of the application that purportedly describes tracking of logged out users (Paragraph  shows that this excerpt is actually describing a fundamental part of Facebook Platform—social plugins that create social experiences across the web without logging into Facebook repeatedly or third party sites at all."
"Our social plugins allow Facebook users to go to any website with a social plugin and see what content their friends have liked without logging into that website. The user must, however, be logged into Facebook to see this social content on third party websites. What is being described in section  of the application is the fact that you don't have to log into Facebook again at each third party site in order to see social plugin content. You just have to be currently logged in to Facebook when you visit the site. If you continue reading the application (i.e. paragraphs  and ), you'll also find it is consistent with our longstanding principles of notice, choice and control, and offers mechanisms and processes by which a person would be notified and could opt in or out."
"There are other things mentioned in the patent application and, for many of those, it's important to understand how companies use patents. That is, technology companies patent lots of ideas. Some of these ideas become products or features and some don't. As a result, current functionality and future business plans shouldn't be inferred from our patent applications."
Either way, privacy groups and US congressmen want the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Facebook for these and other practices. It's up to the government to decide whether this is a problem for users or not.