Facebook’s Beacon sparks privacy complaints from users

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When you use Facebook, the popular social networking service, do you know where your personal data might end up?

The rapidly expanding site, recently valued at $15 billion, has continually added features that allow users to keep track of friends and acquaintances in unique ways, such as the News Feed, a series of mini-stories about what one’s connections are up to. When the site implemented News Feed, users complained about the invasion of privacy. Facebook responded by implementing some controls on the service, and it forged ahead.

Now they’re facing another backlash.

The dust-up is over Facebook’s Beacon service, which integrates with not just the News Feed but also with several external vendors, such as Fandango, a movie ticket site. As Ari Rabin-Havt explains at Open Left:

On Saturday night I used Fandango to purchase the tickets for the movie Michael Clayton.

Then on Sunday, I looked at my Facebook feed and saw this:

“Ari bought Michael Clayton on Fandango. 5:25PM”

Having your privacy violated is a strange feeling. I don’t really care that people know I went to the movies on Saturday night. I would freely share this information with anyone. But that’s exactly the point. It should be up to me to share this information with others, not up to Facebook or Fandango to make that choice for me.

Protest groups have already sprung up on Facebook, where, by all accounts, the admins are relatively responsive to the community. MoveOn.org is getting into the fight as well, writing a Civic Action Alert calling attention to the protest groups and the issue at hand:

Facebook says its users can “opt out” of having their private purchases reported to the world. But the link is easy to miss. And even if you do “opt out” for purchases on one site, it doesn’t apply to purchases on another site — you have to keep opting out over and over again. The obvious solution is to switch to an “opt in” policy, like most other applications on Facebook.

Is Facebook going to respond in some way? Probably. Again, they’ve been fairly responsive to their user base in the past, and are engaged in a rapidly changing business (online social networking) in which new players are coming online on a regular basis. But are they required to respond? Essentially, no. Their Terms of Use, in saying “We reserve the right, at our sole discretion, to change, modify, add, or delete portions of these Terms of Use at any time without further notice…” ensure that Facebook Inc. has full control over the rules for the way its site is used, however “open” the platform may feel to a single user.

Then again, perhaps it’s all a moot argument — ideas on how to block the Beacon service are already popping up across the Web. Long live the immediate gratification of the Web!

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