03 December, 2007

Facebook's Beacon cranking up privacy concerns


Mighty rumbles across Facebook universe as it has implemented a new advertising technology, called Beacon, to make the online shopping experience that much more social ... and has now reversed out the most intrusive elements of the new functionality.

What's the fuss about?

When Facebook users shopped online, Beacon told friends what they looked at or bought. More than 40 websites, including Fandango.com, Overstock.com and Blockbuster, signed up to use Beacon software on their webpages and report what Facebook users did when they visited. Could be useful, yes?

YES, but naively Facebook launched Beacon as an "default opt out" system (ie everyone knew what you had bought, unless you specifically said 'Absolutely no way').

International Herald Tribune reports that there was a pop-up box alert to FB users that indicated that information was about to be shared with Facebook unless they click on "No Thanks." The pop-up disappears after about 20 seconds, after which consent is assumed. Admittedly, this pop-up appears on every partner site that has adopted Beacon.

Here's one the more harmless examples of where it went wrong, also from IHT:
"People should be given much more of a notice, much more of an alert," said Matthew Helfgott, 20, a college student who discovered his girlfriend just bought him black leather gloves from Overstock for Hanukkah. "She said she had no idea (information would be shared). She said it invaded her privacy."
At the other end of the scale:
"What if you bought a book on Amazon called 'Coping with AIDS' and that got published to every single one of your friends?"
Yukky, basically.

For users of social software, best practices in privacy are assumed - and those practices don't vary. Messing with these principles messes with the brand.

So guess what? Disgruntled Facebook users formed an online protest (more than 50,000 of them) and forced the mothership to rescind - Beacon is now 'default opt-in'.

As the BBC reports:
The changes to Beacon may not be the last that Facebook has to make to the technology.

Two rights groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy, are believed to be compiling a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission about it.
I'd be much more afraid of further Facebook backlash - further investigative reports like this don't help: Facebook's Beacon More Intrusive Than Previously Thought.

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