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Facebook Apologizes For Beacon Blunders

A month after announcing Facebook's advertising "revolution," humbled CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement Wednesday apologizing for the way his company rolled out the Beacon ad platform and for its sluggish response to the maelstrom of criticism that followed.

Significantly, Zuckerberg's apology also comes with the assurance that Facebook members who do not wish to participate in Beacon can turn the program off entirely, bowing to pressure from privacy advocates and many Facebook users.

"We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them," Zuckerberg wrote in a posting to the Facebook blog. "We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it."

The Beacon advertising program posts notices to Facebook members' news feeds about actions they have taken on the external Web sites of Facebook's advertising partners. In addition to causing the unwitting publication of holiday gifts that Facebook users bought for their friends, the program elicited a host of challenges from privacy, security and legal experts.

Zuckerberg said that Facebook's goal with Beacon was to create a simple mechanism for members to share information with their friends about their lives outside of the site. It had to be "lightweight," he wrote, so it wouldn't get in the way of what people were doing on the Web.

Zuckerberg hadn't figured that "lightweight" would translate to "stealthy" on implementation. He said that's where Facebook miscalculated, and that it took too long to respond to users' complaints that their actions got posted if they didn't click the "No, thanks" icon quickly enough.

Zuckerberg's tone of general contrition about Facebook's handling of the Beacon controversy paired with the complete opt-out offering stands in sharp contrast to the company's earlier efforts to placate critics with incremental tweaks to the system and breezy public statements which critics found evasive.

While Wednesday's statement represents a significant shift in Facebook's policy, some of Zuckerberg's staunchest critics are still unmoved.

"Today's announcement that Facebook users will be able to turn off Beacon, following last week's opt-in changes, is a step in the right direction," Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), wrote in an e-mail to InternetNews.com. "But Mr. Zuckerberg isn't truly candid with Facebook users. Beacon is just one aspect of a massive data collection and targeting system put in place by Facebook."

Chester is referring to Facebook's first concession to the outraged privacy groups and members, which came last week when the company announced that it would not post any actions that users made on external sites to their News Feeds without their permission.

That was enough to get MoveOn.org, the civic action group that has been one of Beacon's most vocal critics, to declare a cautious victory in its fight to get Facebook to take its users' privacy more seriously.

Then came the news from security researchers at Computer Associates that Facebook was still collecting data about actions users took on external sites even if they clicked an icon to prevent the item from being posted to their news feed.

In his statement, Zuckerberg said that Facebook will not store the actions on third-party sites that users who opt out of Beacon altogether take, "even when partners send them to Facebook."

The fact that he acknowledges Beacon partners can still send information about the actions of users who have opted out of Beacon to Facebook leaves the Zuckerberg and Facebook open to further criticism. Judging by the early reactions posted on the discussion board sections of MoveOn's Facebook petition group, a data-collection policy that takes on faith that Facebook is true to its word is not going to be good enough for some users.

And for privacy groups like the CDD, the Beacon controversy is simply the highest-profile example of the troubling intersection of commerce and social media. The CDD is still moving ahead with the complaints it planned to file with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other regulators about the data-collection practices of Facebook and other social sites.

"Mr. Zuckerberg can't simply now do a digital 'mea culpa' and hope that Facebook's disapproving members, privacy advocates and government regulators will disappear," Chester says.