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Facebook: Social Networking Site or Big Brother?

The first time I took note of Beacon, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. It was about one week ago, and I had returned home a few hours earlier from watching some football games at a friend’s apartment. I logged into Facebook, and observed a news feed telling me that my friend had just purchased tickets to see the movie “Michael Clayton.” I was puzzled. Was there a new feature embedded in Facebook that allowed users to purchase movie tickets? Not that I knew of. Had my friend included this info in his status? I doubted it.

The first time I took note of Beacon, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. It was about one week ago, and I had returned home a few hours earlier from watching some football games at a friend’s apartment. I logged into Facebook, and observed a news feed telling me that my friend had just purchased tickets to see the movie “Michael Clayton.” I was puzzled.

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Was there a new feature embedded in Facebook that allowed users to purchase movie tickets? Not that I knew of. Had my friend included this info in his status? I doubted it.

What I learned the next day was that the update was part of Facebook’s relatively new Beacon program, which alerted friends to purchases you made on sites like Travelocity.com and Fandango. It’s a type of online tracking that could be extremely valuable to advertisers, who, when pleased, could make life much better for Facebook execs. A pop-up notified customers on the third-party site that information about their purchase was going to be distributed to Facebook. The customer could then choose not to have the information disseminated to the news feed, but if the user missed the notification (which, as I later found out, is what happened with my friend) or chose to ignore it, the information was sent anyway.

This made me mad. Real mad. Yes, Facebook users share loads of information about themselves, their lifestyle, their preferences — but it’s voluntary, right?

I wanted the option to check out of this program altogether, but it wasn’t there. And the fact that I had to actively opt out after each purchase also annoyed me. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? So I decided to sign an online petition and hope for the best.

The next day, I read that Facebook had reversed their policy and would only disseminate information after gaining explicit approval from users. I still wanted that overall opt-out option but this was a start.

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Then, this morning, I read a blog on the website for the IT management company CA, which claimed that Facebook was still collecting purchase information even when users said they did not want the information included in news feeds and even when users were not logged in to Facebook. Say what?

Facebook then provided the CA Security Advisor blog with the following statement:

“When a Facebook user takes a Beacon-enabled action on a participating site, information is sent to Facebook in order for Facebook to operate Beacon technologically. If a Facebook user clicks “No, thanks” on the partner site notification, Facebook does not use the data and deletes it from its servers. Separately, before Facebook can determine whether the user is logged in, some data may be transferred from the participating site to Facebook. In those cases, Facebook does not associate the information with any individual user account, and deletes the data as well.”

Should we believe it, do something about it, or just live with it? Does anyone else think Facebook is risking alienating a considerable portion of their user base? Is this ethically acceptable? Or is the potential advertising revenue worth the risk?

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