Facebook caves on privacy-invading ads, kind of

The social network makes some positive changes to its Beacon ad program.

Published November 30, 2007 7:35PM (EST)

Along with many other Facebook users, I've been agitating for the social network to shut down or improve Beacon, the ad program that sends your friends Facebook alerts about your activity across the Web.

Yesterday Facebook made some changes to the program. They go far in addressing the worst aspect of the system: Now if you do not give Facebook permission to alert your friends about your activity on one of Facebook's advertisers' sites, Facebook will not send out an alert. Previously, if you did not give Facebook permission -- that is, if you did nothing -- Facebook assumed you were OK with Beacon ads.

But Facebook did not completely address critics' concerns. Specifically, it still is not allowing users to completely bow out of Beacon. Critically, this means that if you do something on a Facebook partner site, Facebook still gets information about your actions, whether you like it or not.

Beacon is a form of what marketers call "social ads." It's sort of the Web equivalent of word-of-mouth. When you do something on Fandango -- buy a movie ticket, say -- or one of Facebook's other advertisers' sites, the companies try to send out alerts, through Facebook, to your friends, in the hopes that they will follow your example.

Initially, Beacon gave people little choice over whether Facebook's advertisers could send messages from you.

Now, says Facebook, the first time you use a Facebook partner site, you will be given a choice to opt in to Beacon alerts for that site.

Say you buy something from Overstock. When you next check your Facebook page, you'll see a note asking if you'd like to send an alert about your Overstock experience to your friends. If you do nothing, Facebook does not send out the message.

That is progress. MoveOn.org, which had launched a campaign against Beacon, says that the move represents a "victory" for the program's critics.

But because Facebook is not allowing you to completely shut down Beacon, there are still privacy problems with the program, as developer Nate Weiner points out on his blog.

Weiner says that when he visited to Kongregate, a game site that advertises on Facebook, he got a notice asking him if he'd like to send a Beacon alert to his friends. He clicked "no thanks." But when Weiner analyzed what his browser did in response, he noticed that Kongregate sent data to Facebook anyway.

Weiner notes, "I'm not saying that Facebook is storing this data, there is no way for me to know. But they are without a doubt receiving it."

Is there a way to prevent Facebook from learning what you do on its partner sites? Indeed, there is. Use Firefox, and install a plug-in to block Beacon.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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