Fighting Facebook's Beacon


Turns out the Facebook generation does have concerns about privacy. But only certain kinds of privacy.

Those photographs that would have allowed earlier generations of blackmailers to retire rich? No problem--the more the better. The hourly updates on mood and romantic status? Those are fine, too.

But Facebook whacked a hornet's nest with its new purchase-alert system, Beacon.

The social networking company already has backed off a step or two from its idea of alerting people to online purchases made by their Facebook friends. The service, introduced in early November, originally required users to opt out every time they made a purchase that they did not want tracked on-screen; Beacon is now opt-in.

Even so, some big-name partners are bailing out...and users have published their own add-on to the Firefox browser, which blocks Beacon from collecting purchase information -- something it does even if you elect not to have the info published.

The Beacon blocker (and the member group, "Facebook, Stop invading my privacy!") has been popularized across the social network itself, showing up in news feeds in much the same way the purchases tracked by Beacon are supposed to do.

The targeted data collected by Beacon, and the recommendation system it enables, look like holy grails to advertisers. But many Facebook users want control over the kind of information published about them and are reluctant to work as marketing agents for big companies. Those qualms may ease with time--or maybe these open-book policies represent the last taboos in an exhibitionist culture.

Either way, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg probably understands the issue better than he'd like: As the controversy bubbled, he was trying--and failing--to keep an unofficial Harvard alumni magazine from publishing his own personal information, including excerpts of a college diary and his social security number.