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Update: Facebook caves in to Beacon criticism

Users skeptical the move will allay their privacy concerns; CEO admits 'mistakes'

By Heather Havenstein
December 5, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Several Facebook users said today's announcement that they can now completely turn off the site's controversial Beacon advertising system is not enough to allay their privacy concerns. The social networking firm has been slammed by a firestorm of criticism over privacy concerns about the Beacon system, which was released last month.

In a blog post today, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, "We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it. We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them."

The latest change lets users adjust their privacy setting here after logging in. Or, they can click on “privacy”  in the upper right hand corner of their profile and then click on “external web sites.” They can then check a box to stop Web sites from sending information about their actions back to Facebook.

Facebook came under withering criticism from its users and privacy advocates alike when a security researcher revealed that the ad system tracks user activities on third-party partner sites -- including the activities of people who never signed up with Facebook, who deactivated their accounts or who were not signed on to the site. Beacon captures data on what users do and buy on the external sites and sends it back to Facebook.

The first goal when building Beacon, Zuckerberg continued in the post, was to build a "simple product to let people share information across the sites with their friends."

The company first tried to make the system lightweight so people wouldn't have to touch it for it to work, he said. However, making it an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system didn't work, because "if someone forgot to decline to share something, Beacon still went ahead and shared it with their friends," he said.

"It took us too long after people started contacting us to change the product so that users had to explicitly approve what they wanted to share," he added. "Instead of acting quickly, we took too long to decide on the right solution. I'm not proud of the way we've handled this situation and I know we can do better. People need to be able to explicitly choose what they share, and they need to be able to turn Beacon off completely if they don't want to use it."

Just after the announcement, some Facebook users questioned whether the move is enough to alleviate their privacy concerns.

In an online Facebook forum dedicated to privacy protests over Beacon, user Rob Tandry said he is concerned that the action may simply be a red herring.

"On the opt-out page, it says that you will stop information from being posted to your profile," he noted. "It does not explicitly state that Facebook will stop collecting the information transmitted from third party sites."

Facebook user Tom Hessman added that Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook will still be receiving data from partner sites whether users opt out or not. "From the sound of it, everything still works as is, except that on the Facebook end you can opt to never have [information about activities on other sites] publish. And if you do, supposedly they purge the data. But with the way Beacon works, the data could still very well exist in Facebook's standard Web server logs … do they purge those too?"

Meanwhile, user Paulette Altmaier noted on the forum that "It's much too early to declare victory. It's not in our interests to have our personally identifiable information aggregated by anyone. An opt-out from publishing is not enough - we want an opt-out from affiliate sites sending anything to Facebook," she wrote.

Another Facebook user, Simon Smith, said that he welcomed the move for the global opt-out, but also noted that Zuckerberg still "needs to build trust and talk straight."

Some of the privacy experts who have been criticizing Facebook about the intrusiveness of Beacon, said that the company is still not doing enough to protect its users from data collection.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said in a statement that "Beacon is just one aspect of a massive data collection and targeting system put into place by Facebook. Mr. Zuckerberg's goal, as he explained it Nov. 6, 2007 was to transform it into 'a completely new way of advertising online.' [He] can't simply now do a digital 'mea culpa' and hope that Facebook's disapproving members, privacy advocates and government regulators will disappear."



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