In November there was a brouhaha about Facebook’s Beacon innovation, which for a lot of people represented an unacceptable intrusion on privacy.
GigaOm saw it as “a privacy disaster waiting to happen”.
It looks to me as if we are concluding the year with, for practical purposes, Facebook off the hook, but the jury still out on the broader issues of social networking sites and privacy.
I must admit that, as I am a very intermittent user of Facebook and have lately had more than a few other things on my plate, it took me a while to figure out what all the fuss was about. But I felt there was something going on that I needed to know more about.
Today I finally got around to doing some research. My online searching indicated that the drama was intense in November and then fizzled out early in December. It also suggested that, while the Beacon story itself might not have legs, there were some bigger issues, about privacy and social networking sites, that had not by any stretch of the imagination been resolved.
There is a good explanation of what Facebook Beacon is and does, with illustrative screenshots, in a late November post on the New York Times blog, The Evolution of Facebook’s Beacon (via Jon Beattie).
On the privacy issue, the NY Times post reported:
Facebook executives say they do not want to add a universal opt-out button because then users would not be able to try out Beacon on different sites to see what it can offer. One Facebook executive predicts that consumers may “fall in love” with Beacon once they understand it.
On December 3, Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch provided an update with More Facebook Advertisers Bail From Beacon. Plus, New Concerns:
What has privacy advocates up in arms, and advertisers skittish, about Beacon is the way it seems to be spying on you as you surf the Web and then, on top of that, reporting what you just did to everyone you know.
Mashable and other sites reported that Facebook collects web user data not just on Facebook users but on others too.
A post on the Computerworld site points to the bigger picture of user tracking and privacy issues, in relation not just to Facebook but to social networking sites generally.
The controversy raised by the social networking site’s use of the Beacon technology has helped drag into the open the widespread but hitherto largely hidden problem of online consumer-tracking and information-sharing, according to privacy advocates.
On Read/Write Web on December 17, Josh Caton says now that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized and Facebook has provided a global opt-out option, the Beacon “saga” is over.
That may be so, at least the “saga” bit, although I find Josh’s analysis somewhat Panglossian.
And I’m not sure whether I find Zuckerberg’s apology and “explanation” disingenuous or naive. If I was feeling unkind and lacking in Christmas sentiments of goodwill, I would say that, coming from one so young, it is depressing spin (yes, I harbour this romantic idea that young people are instinctively idealistic, no matter how much money is involved).
I simply don’t believe the privacy issues are resolved, not just for Facebook, but for social networking sites generally.
Nor do I believe the market will sort it out unaided or unguided. There are too many businesses wanting to mine and use every bit of data they can get on web user behaviour.
But while we are waiting for future developments, here’s how to block Beacon.
And while it might be “braces and a belt”, I’ve chosen also to activate the privacy option on my Facebook home page:
Click “privacy” on the upper right
Click “External Web Sites”
Check “Don’t allow any websites to send stories to my profile” and click “Save”.
As I understand, this just stops Facebook displaying your Web use data. It doesn’t stop third-party companies collecting the data and sending it to Facebook.
And if you trust them not to do anything improper with that data, fine.
I’m not so sure.