Facebook has drawn the ire of thousands of its users, and has once again bowed to the pressure of the political campaign against its advertising techniques. Facebook has made significant changes to its recently launched Beacon advertising platform after 50,000 Facebook members signed a MoveOn.org petition over a 10-day period, asking the site to respect user privacy.
Beacon sends messages to Facebook members' friends about what they are purchasing online. If a member booked a trip to Japan on Travelocity.com, for example, friends on Facebook would know it. If the member purchased a ticket to "American Gangster," that would also be known among friends.
But the social-networking site now says it won't send messages about members' Internet activities without getting approval each and every time. Members will opt in to the program.
Big Brother Is Watching
When Facebook launched the program on November 6, it certainly wasn't positioned as the Big Brother scenario that privacy advocates have criticized it for being. The new advertising solution was positioned as an option to share actions on other sites with friends on Facebook.
"Just as Facebook shares your on-site interactions with your friends through News Feed, we now give you an option to let News Feed share your off-site actions with your friends as well," explained Leah Pearlman, the product manager for Facebook ads, in the company blog.
She figured adding the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to your queue on Blockbuster.com might be something you want your friends to know about. Pearlman promised members complete control over the information. The only problem, as far as privacy advocates were concerned, is that members had to opt out instead of opting in.
MoveOn.org launched its petition on November 20, saying Beacon was an invasion of privacy. "Site like Facebook must respect my privacy," the petition reads. "They should not tell my friends what I buy on other sites -- or let companies use my name to endorse their products -- without my explicit permission."
This isn't Facebook's first run-in with its members over privacy issues. In September 2006, a protest group known as the Students Against Facebook News Feed gathered more than 700,000 signatures. The feeds collect up-to-the-minute social network information, such as what friends are in a member's network, and display it on members' Facebook home pages. Feeds might say, "Joe befriended Jane" or "Johnny likes Star Trek."
"We are pleased by Facebook's decision, at least in terms of Beacon. It was a mistake to do this as an opt-out. It needed to be opt-in from the start," Rotenberg said. "The change is significant. But this also points to ongoing questions about the adequacy of privacy protection for social-network sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Clearly, there are a lot of privacy issues remaining and we plan to look at those as the new year approaches."