Facebook Fiasco May Lead to Closer Look at Online Privacy Issues

The firestorm of criticism that hit Facebook Inc.s Beacon advertising service last week may, ironically, prove to be a positive development for the online privacy movement.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based social networking company was forced to adjust the service Dec. 5, just days after CA Inc. researchers found that Beacon is far more invasive than advertised.

Launched in early November as part of the Facebook Ads program, Beacon by default tracks the activities of Face­book members on more than 44 participating Web sites and sends reports on those activities to the users Facebook friends.

Stefan Berteau, a senior research engineer on CAs antispyware research team, said on Monday that Beacon is actually tracking the activities of both members and nonmembers on Facebook and its partner sites.

Complaints about CAs findings quickly prompted Facebook to allow users to fully turn off the system.

This Facebook debacle is in one way very good, because it shows people just what is happening, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum in Cardiff by the Sea, Calif.

There are other sites and other places where very similar data arrangements exist, but it is all happening under the radar, Dixon added.

In a statement, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the problems with the Beacon service.

We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it, he said. Weve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but weve made even more with how weve handled them.

Kathryn Montgomery, professor of communication at American University in Washington, said that Facebooks move to let users turn off Beacon will not radically change corporate online marketing strategies.

These companies, she said, are continuing full-steam ahead with a new generation of intrusive marketing practices based on unprecedented levels of data collection and personal profiling.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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