Facebook's Privacy Debacle

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 12-18-2007

Turns out the Facebook generation does have concerns about privacy. But only certain kinds of privacy.

Photographs that would have allowed earlier generations of blackmailers to retire rich? No problem. Updates on mood and romantic status? Those are fine, too.

But Facebook whacked a hornet's nest when it introduced a purchase-alert system called Beacon, which alerts people across the social network to the online shopping expeditions of friends.

User feedback was immediate and intense. Beacon was too intrusive. A petition signed by more than 50,000 users helped convince Facebook to retool Beacon's opt-out mechanism, which required action on each purchase. And some of Facebook's partners in the venture, including Coca-Cola and retailer Bluefly.com, reconsidered their participation.

But Beacon collected purchase data even when it remained unpublished. An add-on to the Firefox Web browser that blocks Beacon completely was quickly published online, and popularized (along with the member group "Facebook, Stop invading my privacy!") across the social network itself.

Finally, in early December, Facebook punted: Users can now shut off Beacon completely.

The targeted data collected by Beacon and the recommendations it enables look like holy grails to advertisers. But many Facebook users want control over the information published about them. Those qualms may ease with time—or maybe they represent the last taboos in an exhibitionist culture.

Either way, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg probably understands the issue better than he'd like: As the controversy bubbled, he was trying—and failing—to keep an unofficial Harvard alumni magazine from publishing his own personal information, including excerpts of a college diary and his social security number.