Facebook backtracks on user tracking

3 Dec 2007

The controversial Beacon tool that allowed Facebook to track the online movements of its members’ activities on third-party sites has now been restrained by the social networking site after a backlash by users.

Beacon is one of three new channels that the site offered to organisations for marketing purposes alongside Facebook Social Ads, a viral marketing tool, and the option of simply creating a brand page on the site.

What set Beacon apart was the fact that every time a Facebook member bought something on a third-party site, his or her friends would be alerted to the fact in the newsfeed.

This method of direct marketing or referred marketing brought up privacy issues, especially due to the fact that it was opt-out rather than opt-in and through a pop-up window that stayed for no more than 20 seconds, often with the result that users accidentally did not opt out.

Following an online campaign led by privacy group MoveOn.org objecting to Beacon, which was signed by over 50,000 Facebook members, the social networking site decided to change the opt-out feature to opt-in, asking permission to participate from a Facebook user every time they visit a third-party site.

This decision came soon after vice-president of product marketing and operations at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, had originally told The New York Times that if users “don’t like it [opt-out] they can easily turn it off”.

Now the official line from a Facebook spokesperson is: “Facebook is listening to feedback from its users and committed to evolving Beacon.”

This is proof, if needed, that all social networking sites rely on their users’ feedback and satisfaction and must act with transparency at all times as other sites such as Digg have learned in the past.

While MoveOn.org may have brought about some positive change Jeff Chester, executive director of the US Centre for Digital Democracy, thinks Facebook still has a ways to go to respect user privacy.

“Facebook still doesn’t really want to face up to its many privacy problems. While it modified one aspect of the Beacon system as a result of organised pressure and regulatory concerns, serious safeguards will be necessary to address the range of practices in Facebook’s new targeted marketing system.

“Facebook’s members should have the power to decide how their data is to be collected, analysed and used for commercial purposes. This will require Facebook to more seriously address how its new marketing system undermines user privacy,” added Chester.

By Marie Boran