Facebook Beacon: Still in the Spotlight Almost a Year Later

Facebook Beacon: Still in the Spotlight Almost a Year Later

Facebook's November 2007 launch of Beacon, a new advertising system meant to allow Facebook users to share information on-site about what they're doing across a number of different properties elsewhere on the web, has already been named to the list of Biggest Tech Flubs of 2007 but the pain Facebook has suffered didn't end with the immediate fallout of users and the general media smear that ensued.

Recent class action lawsuits now mention Facebook and a slew of Beacon advertising partners including Fandango, Blockbuster, Overstock.com, and Hotwire among others according to TechNewsWorld.com. So not only did Facebook get themselves in a lot of trouble they brought a group of overzealous advertisers eager at the opportunity to insert references to their brands within Facebook users' profiles along with them.

In response to the backlash Facebook quickly rolled out a new version with much better control given to the user, ie: defaulting this type of sharing to off and allowing users to turn it on if they prefer. Clearly their mistake was not in the development of this new functionality but instead in their act-without-permission approach in the implementation.

Simply put, using data you have about your users within a social network without their permission is social network suicide. Users must trust that the system will obey their own requirements for how they would like their information handled, without that trust the user will not stay engaged or involved.


I find it very interesting that Beacon is still such a hot topic nearly ten months later. But I'm not surprised because I don't believe that they've really buttoned things down all that well when it comes to external parties pushing user data back into Facebook. Just a few weeks ago my friend Erik (real world friend and Facebook friend) went over Fandango.com and purchased movie tickets to the new Batman movie.

He says that he was logged in to Facebook at the time of his order but that he doesn't use the same email address as his user name at Facebook as he does at Fandango. Within minutes of his Fandango purchase an announcement of the purchase and the name of the movie was inserted into his Facebook profile mini-feed. He also claims that he has never enabled anything that would allow a third party site like Fandango to push information into his Facebook profile.

Facebook has commented regarding the privacy of their users "that it only tracks and publishes data about their purchases if they are both logged in to Facebook and have opted-in to having this information listed on their profile." Although there is now information from researchers at CA that Facebook is tracking information about its users from third party sites even if they have opted out of Beacon.

I wonder if Facebook is being tricky in their wording when they say "tracks and publishes." Because of the 'and' another logical iteration is that they may track or they may publish (although publishing first requires tracking so this doesn't make sense) data about their users' purchases if they are logged in to Facebook but have not opted-in to the display of this information within their Facebook profile. It appears that CA has proven technically that Facebook is tracking user behavior across partner sites without user permission and from my friend's recent example it appears that they're publishing this information without user permission as well.

It's really hard to imagine that Facebook is saying that they're not tracking and publishing this information without user permission and that they're blatantly doing both because publishing means that the data will be visible within user profiles in plain sight where it will obviously be noticed and reported (remembering that the point of these call-outs was to get third party advertiser/partner brands noticed in the first place). This would most likely lead to widespread complaints.

But it seems possible that Facebook is tracking user actions via third party partners without user permission and that they're making the user permission settings that control the usage of this information somewhat confusing which is causing some of their users to approve the display of this information without their knowledge.