Facebook's Mea Culpa

Dennis Faas's picture

Less than a month after Facebook announced its Beacon advertising program, the social-networking company has made a serious retreat from its initial plans.

In a statement on Facebook's blog last Wednesday CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a public apology for the way Beacon was introduced. "We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it," Zuckerberg said.

Beacon was Facebook's most recent attempt at finding a way to monetize the increasingly popular web site. The initial launch was announced on November 6, with 44 high-profile companies signed on for the kick-off. Beacon began as a simple idea: whenever a user was logged in to Facebook and then bought something at a partner site, a pop-up window would ask if they would like their recent purchase inserted into the "news feed" on Facebook. If the user said "no" the information would not be relayed, but if they said "yes" or ignored the pop-up window then the product would appear for all their friends to see.

As John Lister reported a few weeks ago, many people complained that the opt-out window was too quick or unnoticeable when their purchase was made. Complaints of ruined Hanukkah and Christmas surprises started coming in, and Facebook started getting nervous. The civic action group Moveon.org even started a group/petition calling Beacon "a huge invasion of privacy"; to date more than 70,000 people have joined. (Source: facebook.com)

On November 30, only three weeks after the program started, the company announced a major revision to Beacon where consumers would have to explicitly agree before their purchases would show up on Facebook. Critics applauded the change, but were still wary of the program. Even though a user could stop their purchases being made public their buying history was still catalogued by Facebook for targeted ads on the site. That is not an unusual move on the web as many companies, such as Google, monitor your online activities to deliver relevant advertisements to your screen.

In the wake of the backlash against Beacon three companies, Overstock.com, Coca-cola and Travelocity, pulled out of the program opting for a 'wait and see' approach. (Source: alleyinsider.com)

Now Facebook has announced a second change, one that perhaps should have been made available from the beginning. "Last week we changed Beacon to be an opt-in system," Zuckerberg said on the blog. "and today we're releasing a privacy control to turn off Beacon completely...If you select that you don't want to share some Beacon actions or if you turn off Beacon, then Facebook won't store those actions even when partners send them to Facebook."

Zuckerberg's apology will probably go a long way with users, but as the company searches for ways to make money in the future it needs to tread lightly. As Steven Levy said in his Newsweek column recently, "Facebook has had a spectacular year, but it would do well to remember that it attained its lofty status by putting users first." (Source: newsweek.com)

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