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"Atlas" platform is finally being officially unveiled after acquisition from Microsoft last May

Facebook, Inc.'s (FB) "Atlas" (Atlas Solutions) is offering third party websites a virtual map of your browsing history online.  This is the first time Facebook has launched an effective "ad network" -- a solution that can target display ads at users offsite.  If you thought Facebook was solely collecting your data to target ads for you onsite, this may come as a bit of a surprise.
 
Atlas was put on the auction block by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) in an effort to salvage value from the semi-disastrous 2007 acquisition of aQuantitive, a purchase that cost Microsoft $6B USD.  Atlas was sold to Facebook last February for somewhere in the range of $55-95M USD, after unsuccessful bids of $30M and $50M USD (according to TechCrunch).
 
Atlas specialized in large advertising campaigns.  An interesting capability was ability to target users tracked on-platform with ads purchased outside its owners network.  In other words, Facebook can feed Atlas your web browsing history and then use that history to purchase ads from certain advertising holding companies.

the new Atlas

Crucially, it appears Facebook is keeping your browsing history private from the advertisers using Atlas and from the third parties whose ads it purchases.  So far the third parties who are offering Atlas ads are Instagram's advertising network (technically owned by Facebook, but a separate business than the social network) and Omnicom Group Inc. (OMC), one of the largest advertising holding networks.
 
Facebook's privacy policy states:

Facebook works with advertising companies to help advertisers show people ads based on other websites those people have visited, among other factors. This helps Facebook show you more useful and relevant ads. For example, if an advertiser is promoting an airline sale to Hawaii, they might want to show their ad to people who recently visited websites related to traveling to Hawaii. Facebook works with an advertising company to help that advertiser show the airline sale ad those people.

In such instances, Facebook doesn't give the advertiser access to any info that identifies you.  We also authorize certain companies that provide service to advertisers to measure the impact of the advertiser's ads on Facebook if they agree to restrictions on how they can use the info they collect.

The last sentence sounds suspicious, but neither Omnicom nor Instagram appear on that list. So presumably Facebook is not sharing actual data via Atlas, it's just using Atlas to target the ads it buys from third parties.

Facebook advertiser
Facebook was long limited to on-site advertising using the data it gains from tracking customers' off-site browsing and on-site activities. [Image Source: ResortSuite.com]

Facebook's purchase of Atlas closed in May 2013, but it is only now getting noisy about the service "relaunching" it, according to a recent article in The Information (a paywalled subscription online newspaper).
 
In many ways Facebook now has a true off-site advertising network, which can look to steal display ad revenue away from Google Inc.'s (GOOG) DoubleClick network.  Google's DoubleClick network bears many similarities, as it too buys from sources such as Omnicom and it uses data from its own first-party platform (Google Search) to target ads.

DoubleClick

What does all this mean for privacy?  Not much of a shift from present, if Facebook keeps its promises about data sharing.  The biggest impact here is that Atlas opens the door to a new world of third party display ads, a potentially lucrative new revenue stream for Facebook.  
 
Display ads -- ads with rich media -- are today perhaps the fastest growing online advertising revenue stream.  In the pre-digital era the display ads of the day (print images) were one of the most popular forms of advertising, but their impact diminished as internet text-based advertising took off, courtesy of Google and Facebook, among others.  Now they're making a comeback, in today's more graphically rich modern web landscape.

Display Ads
Display ads are making a comeback. [Image Source: Matrix Advertising]

Both Google and Facebook are roughly tied in display ad market share at present, thanks in part to Facebook's prior lack of a solution for partner websites.  Now it has that solution and is threatening to surpass Google as the leader in display ads.  In time this could shift the balance of overall advertising power in Facebook's favor.
 
Google is surely warily watching this development.

Sources: The Information [paywall], via RE/Code





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