A not-so-hypothetical situation: It’s the Christmas season, and you’re doing a little bit of online shopping. You click over to Amazon, or eBay, or another one of 40 or so sites, and make your purchase. And the next thing you know, all of your “friends” on Facebook get an update in their Facebook News Feeds: “DaniGirl just bought Season Six of Smallville on DVD from Amazon.com.” What, you didn’t see the little pop-up window warning you that your purchase was about to be added to your Facebook account? Oh well, hopefully the “friend” you were buying the gift for doesn’t read his news feed that day.
As if that weren’t creepy and disturbing and Orwellian enough for you, how about the fact that you are automatically signed up for this “feature” and to opt out you have to do so on a case-by-case basis.
Here’s how the CBC describes “Beacon”, the latest new “service” on Facebook (thanks to Barbara for the link):
For example, when you engage in consumer activity at a partner website, such as Amazon, eBay, or the New York Times, not only will Facebook record that activity, but your Facebook connections will also be informed of your purchases or actions.
If you buy a book on Amazon, a little bit of code is embedded within that site then sends the data to Facebook and informs your friends that you’ve bought a particular book. Or say you’re surfing the recipe/food site Epicurious and rate or comment on a few recipes, again your Facebook friends will be notified of your culinary interests, as will Facebook itself and their advertising partners.
Thus where Facebook used to be collecting data only within the confines of its own website, it will now extend that ability to harvest data across other websites that it partners with. Some of the companies that have signed on to participate on the advertising side include Coca-Cola, Sony, Verizon, Comcast, Ebay â€” and the CBC. The initial list of 44 partner websites participating on the data collection side include the New York Times, Blockbuster, Amazon, eBay, LiveJournal, and Epicurious.
The idea, of course, is that if you see a friend buying a certain product or using a particular website, you’ll take that as an endorsement for that product or service. It’s insidious and creepy, and may be the achievement of advertising’s Holy Grail: ads that don’t seem like ads at all. You may also find your profile picture beside paid ads for whatever product or service you bought. Imagine it: “Trojan Condoms with extra sensitivity, now available from Amazon.com. DaniGirl bought a box yesterday!” with my profile pic of me – and the boys, no less – beaming out at you.
MoveOn.org offers a flash demo of how Beacon works. I’ve been trying to figure out the technology behind the tracking of purchases, and while I’m sure it must use some sort of tracking cookie, I can’t find any information about exactly how it’s triggered.
Now, you know I’m not anti-advertising, and I’m not even all that vigilant about protecting my personal information online. I think the nature of most bloggers leaves them fairly laissez-faire about sharing information about their activities and interests online in a public forum. When the Sitemeter / Specificclick blogstorm passed through (Sitemeter was installing “spyware” tracking cookies to report web behaviour back to an advertiser) I made sure to switch to a tracking-free account, but I wasn’t alarmed enough to stop using Sitemeter because of it.
This time, however, I’m seriously considering using these instructions to not only deactivate my Facebook account but to delete it entirely. (Facebook doesn’t allow you to simply delete an account, it just lets you put it into dormancy, leaving all the juicy personal details you’ve added intact in its databanks.)
At the very least, I’ve signed the petition at MoveOn.org, which required the use of a fake zip code, since they don’t seem to be receptive to Canadian signatories — ironic, because Facebook is far more popular here than in the US.
I have to admit, I don’t use Facebook much anymore these days anyway. I sign on every day to play a couple of ongoing games of Scrabulous, but I haven’t perused my own News Feed in a while. If Facebook reconsiders its position and makes Beacon an opt-in system like most of its applications, I’ll probably keep a stripped-down account just so I can keep my toes in the social-networking waters. While it’s a fun toy, I can’t say that Facebook has been an incredibly useful tool, or even as much fun as blogging. I don’t think I’d miss it.
What do you think? Do you have a Facebook account, and does this freak you out, or is this just something we’re going to have to get used to in an increasingly transparent online world?