It's time to opt out of opting out.
I never thought I'd agree with arch-lefty group MoveOn.org about anything, but this time those folks are on to something worthy of all of our support.
MoveOn's Civic Action division, which as near as I can tell is like Ralph Nader's old PIRG operation, has embarked on a campaign against Facebook and its new "Beacon" advertising feature. MoveOn claims that Beacon "sullies" social networking and infringes user privacy. I would add that it sets a very bad precedent, and if not stopped now by users will slowly infect all community sites on the Web.
The best description of how it works was written by Vauhini Vara in the Wall Street Journal -- but simply put, when a Facebook user makes an online purchase of a product or service that is affiliated with Beacon (Fandango and Blockbuster, for example), that user's Facebook page will briefly list that purchase and ask if you want to share that fact with your Facebook friends list.
So far, so good. Like most people, I'm willing to allow a Web site I like to steal a few seconds of my time in exchange for content so that it can earn some advertising revenues. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, There's no such thing as free ware, and that includes online content. If we are going demand that everyone from record companies to bloggers give away their content for nothing, then we have to allow them to earn their revenues in some other way.
And that brings us back to Beacon. Because here's what happens: if you ignore that 'opt-out' button for about thirty seconds, it disappears. Vara tried it with Fandango tickets and found that it took four separate clicks on two different sites (Fandango and Facebook) to stop that information from being shared with scores of Facebook 'friends.'
The argument made by Facebook in support of this is disingenuous, and uses that old trick I learned in my PR days of isolating one error in the opponent's claim and using that to dismiss their entire argument. In this case, Chris Kelly, Facebook's "chief privacy officer" (one of those new corporate titles that's going to come back and bite companies) told the New York Times that MoveOn is "misstating the way this process works." In particular, he said, the purchase is only shared with confirmed friends and on the user's own profile, not to the "world." At the same time, he does confirm, that if the user ignores the notification and fails to opt out, the purchase information will be automatically displayed.
And this coming from the Chief Privacy Officer of Facebook.
Just on this information alone, you can already predict what's happening to Facebook users around the world. You go online to, say, Overstock.com, and buy a Christmas present for your wife. Or you drop into Blockbuster to rent a sexually explicit or homoerotic film. You're racing through the Web, as usual, you've got pop-up and streaming ads racing across every page you visit, and you happen to miss those two 'don't display' buttons that have been cleverly designed and carefully placed so as not to get your attention and next thing you know, you're wife has just learned of her Christmas present on Dec. 4 and your elderly grandmother and all of the people at your office now know you just rented Convict Girls in Love.