Red-hot social networking site Facebook made a concession to privacy advocates Thursday by promising a significant change to an embattled advertising program that shares information about a member’s purchases with his or her friends.
The change could go a long way toward satisfying critics, who have been calling on the Internet site to give users a permanent way to shield the information.
The Palo Alto company, which had 52 million visitors to its site in June alone, announced it would no longer publish information about purchases – such as a member’s decision to buy a movie ticket – unless users approve it.
By doing so, it backed away from a growing confrontation with privacy advocates, who had been organizing a campaign against Facebook’s Beacon advertising program. In just over a week, more than 50,000 members had signed onto a Facebook protest site – “Petition: Facebook, stop invading my privacy” – that was started by the political advocacy group MoveOn.org.
“No stories will be published without users proactively consenting,” Facebook said in a statement released late in the afternoon. Until now, users had to click to opt out when making a purchase on a participating Internet site to prevent the details from being published on their friends’ Facebook pages. Or they could opt out by clicking a box on their own Facebook page.
Adam Green, a spokesman for MoveOn, said the change “would be a big step in the right direction.” He said it seemed clear Facebook backed down after seeing the wave of Internet pressure. “It says a lot about the ability to make a difference,” Green said.
The Beacon program was launched earlier this month as part of a broader advertising initiative to increase revenue at the popular site, which was valued at $15 billion after Microsoft invested $240 million for a 1.6 percent stake in October. Still in testing, Beacon allows users to publicize personal information – purchases they make or restaurant reviews they write – and gives a select group of advertisers the opportunity to post ads on the Facebook pages of the users’ friends.
The advertising program has been criticized for revealing more information than many users were willing to share. Some complained Christmas purchases they made quickly became known to the friends expected to receive them. Facebook’s willingness to rethink the program became clear early Thursday when Paul Janzer, manager of user operations, posted a statement on the advocates’ site saying the company wanted to make information about the Beacon program more visible to users and would clarify the way users are alerted before their purchase data is sent to friends. At the time, a spokeswoman said that meant making a message that appears on a member’s main Facebook page easier to spot. The message gives the user the chance to opt-out of distributing the material.
But in the late afternoon, the company issued a second statement with the policy reversal. Users now will need to click “OK” on a notification box appearing on their Facebook page before personal information about a purchase is published to their friends, the company said.
Facebook had made more modest changes to the Beacon program earlier this week, but those had not satisfied its critics. The company’s about-face surprised some Internet executives.
Mike La Rotonda, chief executive of Internet advertising company Votigo, said he didn’t anticipate such a dramatic change. “I still think the average Facebook user doesn’t really care and the very vocal minority is raising the fuss,” La Rotonda said in an e-mail. What the company needed to do, added senior analyst Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester Research, is to be transparent.
Compliments of Mark Boslet, Mercury News