Facebook Backpedals on Beacon

Facebook last night made the announcement many have been expecting for the three weeks since CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the company’s controversial new ad platform.

Now, the company is withdrawing somewhat on its plans for Beacon in the wake of immediate and hostile reaction from legal experts, privacy advocates and concerned users of the social networking site, who said the platform had gone too far.

Under the original Beacon design, users who made a purchase on a participating Web site had to click a “no thanks” icon to prevent that action from being published as a news story in their feed.

As a result of the change, however, Facebook said users will have to proactively give their consent for an action they take on an external site to show up in their news feeds.

Users still will see their actions appear on their profile pages, but they will have to click “OK” for the item to turn up in their news feed where their friends can see it. If the user ignores the item, Facebook said it would not be published.

These changes will not give users the ability to permanently opt out of the program, however.

Acknowledging that this might not be the final solution to privacy concerns, Facebook said these changes may not be its last.

“We recognize that users need to clearly understand Beacon before they first have a story published, and we will continue to refine this approach to give users choice,” the company said in a statement.

Facebook also said it would add a Beacon tutorial to its site to help users better understand how the program works.

To some degree, the announcement may mollify groups like MoveOn.org, the civic action group that started a petition calling on Facebook to take its users’ privacy more seriously following the Beacon launch.

Last Tuesday, MoveOn created a Facebook group in support of the petition, which as of this writing has more than 54,000 members.

“If Facebook changes their policy so that no private purchases made on other websites are displayed publicly on Facebook without a user’s explicit permission, that would be a huge step in the right direction — and would say a lot about the ability of everyday Internet users to band together to make a difference,” MoveOn’s Adam Green wrote on the petition group page.

In anticipation of the announcement, Green sent an e-mail to InternetNews.com indicating that the petition group would accept Facebook’s policy changes only if the company ceased displaying transactions without explicit opt-in and adds a permanent opt-out for the system.

“If the answers to these questions haven’t changed, [then] Facebook has only made cosmetic tweaks to a flawed policy that puts the wish lists of corporate advertisers ahead of the basic privacy rights of Internet users,” he also wrote on the petition page.

MoveOn spokespeople were not immediately available for comment following Facebook’s announcement to say how far the changes had satisfied its requirements.

At least, the changes could go a long way toward reconciliation with Facebook users who had complained about Beacon adding their holiday gift purchases to their feeds — where the purchases were seen by the intended recipients, spoiling the surprise.

Many users posting to the MoveOn petition group claimed that purchases appeared on their feeds without their knowing because they had either not seen the “no thanks” icon on the third-party site or not clicked it in time.

Whether the change also is enough to reach a peace with privacy groups — some of which have been preparing complaints to file with the Federal Trade Commission against Facebook’s ad platform — seems less likely.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), is one of the harsher critics not only of Facebook’s Beacon, but of what he describes as the “unholy” intersection of social media and advertising.

“It’s a shame that the controversy is just about Beacon,” he told InternetNews.com “It’s the entire set of new marketing practices that they created earlier this month.”

Chester said that creating an opt-in policy would be extremely important for Facebook, but that it is not enough.

“By repeatedly offering to publish all of the user’s actions each time a purchase is made, Facebook is hoping that users will ultimately give in… too busy to make the decision each time,” he said. “Facebook still doesn’t want to face the privacy threats from its new, expanded, targeted profiling system.”

If Facebook doesn’t do more to make its privacy policy transparent and provide users with a permanent way to shield their profile information from advertisers, it could break under the weight of its own hubris, Chester warned.

“Mark Zuckerberg just doesn’t get it. Facebook should be all about user control and privacy,” he said, adding that if it doesn’t do more for users’ privacy, “Facebook is likely to be a casebook for unfair and deceptive business practices in the 21st century.”

Facebook spokespeople did not return requests for comment by press time.

The CDD has been working with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in examining the privacy implications of monetizing social media through advertising. Both have expressed their intention of taking their complaint to the FTC.

EPIC Executive Director Mark Rotenberg told InternetNews.com that an opt-in policy would go a considerable way toward answering his group’s concerns, but added that he was by no means ready to drop the investigation should Facebook announce such a policy.

If the two groups proceed, they will likely file their complaints early next year, they said.

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