Facebook's Faux Pas
Sticking with the topic of social networks, MoveOn.org last week started a campaign against Facebook, claiming that the social-networking site is violating people’s privacy by letting members’ networks of friends see what online purchases they have made.
For example, if I bought a ticket online to go see American Gangster, all my online friends would be instantly notified of this. Why they would want to know this is beyond me, but advertisers can then attach messages to these notifications. I’m pretty sure that would annoy the crap out of most of my commercial-hating friends, but maybe some people don’t mind having their every move documented online and then turned into a commercial. Facebook says the program – called Beacon – is voluntary, while MoveOn.org says the problem is that people have to opt out instead of opting in. In other words, Beacon leaps into action unless you tell it not to.
I think people have the right to be as private or as open as they want to be – and in real life both can be irritating in their own special way – but any sort of private information should never be distributed automatically. That would be like if I told a friend that I was considering moving to a new city or getting a new job and instantly all my other friends and family knew what I said. I might want to discuss that information with one select confidante; I probably wouldn’t want to let my close family or co-workers in on that conversation until I was much closer to making a decision.
I agree with MoveOn’s point – at the very least Beacon should be an opt-in program, if it should exist at all – but I also agree with this guy who is quoted in the LA Times article that I linked to above: "Longtime MoveOn.org member and online advertising network executive Scott Rafer is so enraged, he’s moving on from MoveOn. ‘If they wish to go after consumer privacy rights legislation, then fine,’ he said. ‘When they are trying to get a bunch of people together to stage a sit-in at a for-profit start-up in Palo Alto, then give me a break, get me off your e-mail list. Even if this does turn out to be the right cause, it’s the wrong organization.’"
MoveOn should stick with political causes and leave digital lobbying to other groups. Still, it’s probably good that a group that gets as much press as MoveOn is pointing out to Facebook that its new program is totally obnoxious. The point of social networks is to connect with friends, not to give companies a way to exploit you and everyone you know.