Facebook finally lets users turn off privacy-invading ads

The social network acknowledges its mistake in its plan to send ads to its members' friends.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published December 6, 2007 2:00PM (EST)

"I'm not proud of the way we've handled this situation and I know we can do better," Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, told members of the social network Wednesday in a blog post. The mea culpa was long overdue.

For weeks, many Facebook members had been protesting Beacon, an advertising plan in which Facebook tapped in to people's activities on sites across the Web in an attempt to sell to their friends.

Today, finally, Zuckerberg did what critics -- including MoveOn.org, which took an early stand in the case -- had been demanding: He allowed people to turn Beacon off. He also made clear that when members do turn off the system, Facebook will not store information about your surfing habits that it receives from its ad partners.

As originally conceived, Beacon was a particularly egregious scheme for invading your privacy. Dozens of sites had contracted with Facebook to send people's surfing data to the social network; your profile would send out little messages to your friends about what you were doing on those sites -- telling them that you were shopping on Overstock.com, say, or were cooking certain recipes at Epicurious -- as a kind of ad for those sites.

Not only did Facebook not allow people to turn off the system, it also assumed that if you did not explicitly prohibit it from sending messages out from each site in its ad network, you were granting permission. In other words, Beacon was devised as an opt-out plan -- or, more precisely, it was plead-out, because getting the system to stop sending messages on your behalf involved a torturous number of steps.

Responding to the critics, last week Facebook fixed the system a bit, making the plan opt-in.

But it remained unclear whether Facebook was making use of your private data anyway -- as programmers looked into the plan, they learned that even if you did not specifically opt in to Beacon, Facebook's partners still sent the social network data on your behavior. That's why it's important that Zuckerberg has pledged not to store data about your actions on Facebook's advertisers' sites when you turn Beacon off.

In his post, Zuckerberg explains away Beacon's problems as a failure to "find the right balance" between making Beacon easy and making Beacon safe.

Beacon, he says, began with the best of intentions: "We were excited about Beacon because we believe a lot of information people want to share isn't on Facebook, and if we found the right balance, Beacon would give people an easy and controlled way to share more of that information with their friends."

But in trying to make the system "lightweight" enough that it didn't get in people's way, the company overlooked its privacy implications, Zuckberberg says.

Worse, he adds, Facebook dithered in the face of controversy: "It took us too long after people started contacting us to change the product so that users had to explicitly approve what they wanted to share. Instead of acting quickly, we took too long to decide on the right solution."

The explanation casts Zuckerberg and his team as well-meaning but bumbling, which is a tad convenient, because certainly a few other, more base considerations than mere incompetence prompted Beacon's bad design.

For instance, money: As originally conceived, Beacon had one great thing going for it -- advertisers loved it. Users didn't have much choice in whether to send out alerts from corporations, and thus corporations were eager to pitch in to Facebook's bottom line -- which was certainly welcome news for Facebook, which has been groping for some kind of ad model to justify its investors' huge expectations.

Will the new model hurt Facebook's ad chances? Maybe in the short run. In the long run, though, it's possible the company learned something from its misadventure -- namely, to respect its members' rights -- that could yield larger gains.

To turn off Beacon, go to your privacy settings page in your Facebook profile.


Here's a video on the Facebook kerfuffle that I did for Current TV.

Farhad Manjoo

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

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Facebook Privacy