November 29, 2007

Facebook to Users: "We Own You, Suckers!"

Update (7:30 PM PST): Word has arrived very late today, that apparently bowing to pressure and negative publicity, Facebook will now specifically request user approval "each time" before releasing transaction information under their Beacon system. I agree that this (if appropriately implemented) is a positive step -- presuming that the concept of an assumed opt-in has really been completely removed. However, a simple, complete opt-out option (or even better, a default condition of global opt-out) would still be much more appropriate if Facebook really cares about its users as more than raw materials for future profit center processing.

Greetings. The reaction of Facebook to growing protests by its users over the privacy-invasive implementation of user purchase tracking and promoting for its "Beacon" system, is rapidly becoming a textbook example of how easily arrogance can consume the friendly face of major online services.

When I was first asked for an opinion about Beacon when all details were not yet known, I suggested that it was getting into a touchy area, but that there were ways to handle the system details that could help minimize and mitigate such concerns. Unfortunately, Facebook has chosen a different path, and in the process is telling us more about the mentality of its leadership than a thousand press releases might have revealed.

We can leave aside all the cat-and-mouse details about how long an opt-out box appears, how big it is, or where on a page the box is located. It's obvious to anyone with half a brain and even a modicum of concern about privacy that such a feature, while really needing to be opt-in, should at an absolute bare minimum have a simple and universal opt-out capability. The privacy risks in Beacon as currently implemented are anything but trivial. It's easy to visualize scenarios under which the accidental release of purchase information could have serious repercussions indeed.

By greatly increasing the probability that users' purchases will be revealed unintentionally to third parties, Facebook's Beacon system dives deeply into the anti-privacy cesspool, in a manner that far exceeds potential problems with conventional Web site transactional tracking for internal use.

And by refusing to provide a simple "global" opt-out function, and then taking such an arrogant stance toward its community by belittling legitimate privacy concerns, Facebook and various advertising execs have demonstrated their sense of ownership over users, their belief that the old adage proclaiming "the customer is always right" has been turned on its head -- into a warped nightmare of consumers valued merely as fungible commodities to be fattened and treated like lambs for slaughter.

Luckily for its users, Facebook has some effective competitors, who we can hope will learn some important preemptive lessons from Facebook's current fiasco.

Perhaps it's time for Facebook aficionados to start voting with their feet -- or rather with their mice -- and show Facebook the virtual door. Don't worry too much about hurting their feelings. They'd likely give you the boot in short order if positions were reversed.


Posted by Lauren at November 29, 2007 06:09 PM | Permalink
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