As most readers know, Facebook stirred up a huge storm late last year when people learned that its Beacon ad system was tracking activities from all users on its third-party partner sites, including those who’d never signed up with the social networking giant and those who’d deactivated their accounts. What made Beacon brilliant–but controversial–was that it would then use the information to let people know what their friends were buying. When they learned how Beacon worked, privacy advocates howled for blood–and Facebook agreed to let users turn off Beacon if they wished.
Despite the firestorm, however, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg refuses to dump the Beacon concept entirely. In a recent interview with CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, Zuckerman said that “it might take some work for us to get this exactly right…[but] this is something we think is going to be a really good thing….What would you rather see? A banner ad from Bloomingdale’s or that one of your friends bought a scarf?”
In truth, Zuckerberg is right–the Beacon approach may actually offer some value to consumers. You know, I personally enjoy–and find motivating–the messages Facebook provides on friend activities in other areas. (For example, I’ve signed up for many an app because a friend did.) But Beacon’s approach exposes much more sensitive information–that your husband, say, bought his lady friend lacy lingerie. Learning that through Facebook would definitely smart (and I can smell the lawsuits from a mile away).
All told, it’s a conundrum. To be a social network, you need to leverage shared social activities, but you can definitely go too far. It will be a real rope-walker’s trick to make Beacon functional, yet respectful enough of people’s privacy that it can survive.