Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lessons from the Facebook-Beacon Debacle...

Before this story gets old, it's worth reviewing at least once and drawing some conclusions for future reference. A few weeks ago, Facebook launched its new advertising program called Beacon, which immediately became controversial for broadcasting purchases that Facebook users made on outside websites to all of their Facebook friends. But not everybody wanted to make their shopping habits known to the world, so Facebook users banded together in protest to stop the practice and protect their privacy.

Ultimately, Facebook caved in to the pressure... sort of. Last week, the company agreed to allow users the option to opt-out of the Beacon system, however, by default, everyone is still automatically enrolled in the program. Additionally, even after the announcement was made, it seems that Facebook has intentionally made it very difficult to opt-out of Beacon. After searching for a while, The Nerfherder has figured it out. Login to your Facebook account, click on "Privacy" on the upper-right corner of the page, click on "External Websites", and check the box marked "Don't allow websites to send stories to my profile".

So what have we learned from this entire debacle?

1) Facebook users and their ilk are quite the conundrum. Somehow the people who protested their lack of privacy with Beacon are the same individuals who have no problem sharing drunken pictures and videos of themselves on a regular basis on the site. It seems a bit strange to freak out over your friends knowing that you just bought a pair of socks from Wal-Mart, yet have no problem showing them humiliating photos from your awkward adolescent phase of life when you tried to grow a mustache years prematurely.

2) Cyberactivism by itself does not affect change; It is only the activists' ability to draw media coverage to their cause that is effective. While the Facebook users group opposing Beacon grew to huge numbers of people, it wasn't until they generated a lot of negative publicity in newspapers, on television, and in the blogosphere that Facebook actually decided to change their policy. Bottom line - PR that determines a company's value still matters more than numbers of people opposed against you.

3) Private companies operating on the Web are innovating new ways to erode people's personal privacy. This might not be news to many of you, in which case just add this to the list of empirical evidence for making that argument.

4) This case further demonstrates the ideological shift over ownership in the Digital Age. In the past, when a traditional company offered a service and then began a horrific business practice, their customers would simply switch to using the alternative service of one of their rivals. But as we increasingly see on the Internet, people believe that the websites they use (and generate content for) are more of a common space than a privately owned proprietary one.

Undoubtedly, this will not be the last time you hear about Facebook pushing the envelope of violating personal privacy. So maybe next time everyone ought to keep these things in mind.


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