Feeling Betrayed, Facebook Users Force Site to Honor Their Privacy

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

Sean Lane's purchase was supposed to be a surprise for his wife. Then it appeared as a news headline -- "Sean Lane bought 14k White Gold 1/5 ct Diamond Eternity Flower Ring from overstock.com" -- last week on the social networking Web site Facebook.

Without Lane's knowledge, the headline was visible to everyone in his online network, including 500 classmates from Columbia University and 220 other friends, co-workers and acquaintances.

And his wife.

The wraps came off his Christmas gift thanks to a new advertising feature called Beacon, which shares news of Facebook members' online purchases with their friends. The idea, according to the company, is to allow merchants to effectively turn millions of Facebook users into a "word-of-mouth promotion" service.

Lane called it "Christmas ruined," and more than 50,000 other users signed a petition in recent days calling on Facebook to stop broadcasting people's transactions without their consent.

Last night, Facebook backed down and announced that the Beacon feature would no longer be active for any transaction unless users click "ok." Beacon is a core element of Facebook's attempt to parlay the personal and behavioral information it collects about its members into a more sophisticated advertising business, an effort to turn a user's preferences into an endorsement with commercial value.

The merging of social networking and online advertising combines two of the most powerful forces on the Internet today, and privacy advocates say it raises issues about the way personal data are disclosed for marketing purposes.

"Sites like Facebook are revolutionizing how we communicate with each other and organize around issues together in a 21st century democracy," said Adam Green, a spokesman for MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group that has launched the petition drive to pressure Facebook to stop broadcasting members' purchases and using their names as endorsements without explicit permission. "The question is: Will corporate advertisers get to write the rules of the Internet or will these new social networks protect our basic rights, like privacy?"

The site, which was started in a Harvard dorm room, has become a Silicon Valley powerhouse, recently valued at $15 billion. It allows its users to share messages, photos and updates on their lives.

Facebook launched Beacon as part of a wider social advertising campaign Nov. 6, with 44 announced partners, including Overstock, Travelocity, the auction site eBay, the movie ticket site Fandango, Blockbuster and the shoe site Zappos. The Beacon feature, free to advertisers, is not restricted to commerce. A person's high score on an online game might also be posted for friends to see.

Facebook puts a string of code called a cookie on a user's computer, which tracks the user on Beacon partner sites. In the version that Facebook launched, a person logged into Facebook who bought, say, a movie ticket, was alerted that the Web site was sending a "story" to his profile and had a chance to opt out -- both at the merchant's site and on his own page, Facebook says.

But privacy advocates criticized the opt-out feature -- a pop-up box -- because it disappeared after a few seconds and said Facebook should allow users to turn off Beacon and include an "opt in" feature for those who wish to receive the service. Last night, Facebook apparently added an "opt in" feature for each transaction, which Green called "a huge step in the right direction," but still did not include a way to shut off the service permanently.

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