Friday, November 30, 2007

Facebook Makes Beacon Opt-in!

I was planning to write a post about Facebook beacon (privacy concerns, bad website design, etc) but just hadn't gotten around to it. Well, they announced yesterday that they are fixing it, so now is the perfect chance to actually tell you about Beacon.

For those that don't know, Facebook recently implemented a new feature called "Beacon." This feature was opt-out, meaning that every Facebook user was signed up for using it unless they said "no." That sounds easy enough, but the way it was designed was even more frustrating. What beacon does is it shows your Internet activity to your friends by posting it in their news feeds (a list of all recent Facebook activity of all friends that have chosen to share that activity). This includes purchases at websites such as Amazon and, as well as other activity such as game playing at Kongregate. At each site a link appears for approximately 10 seconds in which you have the option to "opt out" of the activity showing on Facebook.

I have experienced this link, and I only barely caught it in time. It was hard to notice as it was displayed outside of the area I was expected to be looking at on the site (i.e. bottom right of the screen). I probably only caught it quick enough because I knew it must be around somewhere.

One would hope that this mere 10 second window is not the only chance to decline your friends, relatives, and coworkers the chance to know what you are doing in the privacy of your own home. Technically it is not, as the "privacy" setting area of Facebook allows you to choose whether or not to show activity on that website (above picture). However, the option only appears after you have seen the "opt out" link for that site (i.e. bought something, played the game, etc), and if you choose to "never" show the activity it will still not remove it from the news feed of your friends. So it is not a true second chance as once you miss that first 10 second window that activity will be there for the entire Internet to potentially see. Also, the privacy setting defaults to "notify me first" even if you chose "no" on the initial 10 second window.

As you can undoubtedly tell, Beacon was not well designed. There are ethical flaws, privacy flaws, even common sense flaws. It worries me as to what type of people are working at Facebook; when I was an undergraduate in Computer Science we talked about the ethics of the business, and this type of feature would certainly fall into the category of bad computing decisions. I know Zuckerman is only 23, but I'm not that much older than him and I can see the flaws a mile away.

Not surprisingly, the users of Facebook rallied for their rights! Not only was there a Facebook petition group (as of this posting there are 57873 members), there was also a petition that grew with each passing day. There were also blogs that shared information on how to "block" beacon from working.

facebook group

The good news is that they have apologized for the error of their ways (again), and are going to fix the problem. Unsurprisingly they will now be making the program opt-in. The main change will be that the default is now "no, I don't want you to share this!" instead of "oh yes, please, I would love you to share this!" I can't wait to see it in action. There are many other concerns beside the fact that friends might see your activity, such as the fact that Facebook will now know your activity either way. Hopefully this concern will also be considered in their revamp of the service. I'm sure many users will eventually warm up to sharing *some* of their activities, especially since people are generally more likely to participate in something when they make the choice themselves!


Tim said...

facebook likes to push the limits of what their users will tolerate. There was a similar outrage when they introduced the "mini-feed" thing which tells all of your friends what you are doing (but only within the facebook website).

We'll see what they do to test our limits next...

Megan said...

Yes, I totally agree. I feel like this particular transgression is a bit more problematic though...