Facebook Pulls In Beacon Program Again

Under ongoing pressure from privacy advocates, Facebook Wednesday made its second significant retreat in one week from its controversial new Beacon program.

Users will now be able to permanently opt-out of the program, which publishes news about members' purchases at sites like movie ticketer Fandango to their friends. CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the change in a blog post in which he also apologized for the original version of Beacon, and for waiting too long to revise the system.

"We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them," Zuckerberg said. "It took us too long after people started contacting us to change the product so that users had to explicitly approve what they wanted to share. Instead of acting quickly, we took too long to decide on the right solution."

Activist group MoveOn.org, which had lobbied for a revamp of the program, praised the change as "a big step in the right direction." "We hope it begins an industry-wide trend that puts the basic rights of Internet users ahead of the wish lists of corporate advertisers," the group said.

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The turnaround comes more than two weeks after MoveOn.org launched a protest group on the site, "Petition: Facebook, give me back my privacy," which drew more than 50,000 members.

Some Facebook members, including Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, complained of being blindsided by Beacon, which initially published information unless members affirmatively opted out. People also complained about not seeing the opt-out boxes--some of which were served via pop-ups that disappeared after just 20 seconds.

What's more, a few marketers also pulled back from the program. Overstock stopped using Beacon on Nov. 21, while official launch partner Travelocity never actually implemented it. Last Thursday, Facebook revised Beacon by announcing it would no longer share information about activity on third-party sites unless members explicitly consented. With the most recent change, members can opt out once and for all.

Still, even with this latest retreat, it's not clear that the company has quelled anxieties about Beacon--especially because new information about the program continues to emerge. On Saturday, a Computer Associates security researcher posted a report stating that sites that participate in Beacon, such as foodie site Epicurious, send information to Facebook about members' activity--even when those members are signed out of Facebook while on the partner site.

Facebook says it deletes data when Facebook members say they don't want it published.

But members and privacy advocates continue to cast a wary eye on the program. "Many people who joined our Facebook privacy group remain concerned that their private actions on other sites continue to be tracked, even if not posted publicly," MoveOn spokesman Adam Green said.

Jeff Chester, executive director of advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy, said Wednesday he's still going to continue to urge to regulators to curtail Facebook's "massive data collection and targeting system."

"Mr. Zuckerberg can't simply now do a digital mea culpa and hope that Facebook's disapproving members, privacy advocates, and government regulators will disappear," he said in a statement.

Some ad industry executives say they're also worried that Facebook's mishandling of the program could have an impact in Washington, where the Federal Trade Commission recently held hearings about behavioral targeting and online privacy.

"Facebook, whether they like it or not, is now a grown-up company and needs to start acting like one," said privacy expert and consultant Alan Chapell. "There are advocates and regulators that you need to play to here, and they clearly didn't do that."

"You lose a certain amount of credibility for your own organization when you either try to pull a fast one on everybody, or you haven't thought something entirely through before you launch it," he added. "It's problematic for your own organization, and for the rest of the industry, which is trying to do the right thing."

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