When you buy a book, movie, or gift online, do you want that information automatically shared with everyone you know? Last week, the social networking site Facebook began doing just that. Private purchases made by Facebook users on other sites were posted on Facebook for people's co-workers, friends, and random acquaintances to see. Why? To benefit corporate advertisers.
Facebook says its users can "opt out" of having their private purchases made public. But the link is easy to miss. And even if you do "opt out" for purchases on one site, it doesn't apply to purchases on other sites—you have to keep opting out site by site, week by week, month by month. The obvious solution is to switch to an "opt in" policy, like most other features on Facebook.
Facebook's statement to MoveOn.org stressed that because this information is not public, it isn't an invasion of privacy. "Information is shared with a small selection of a user's trusted network of friends, not publicly on the Web or with all Facebook users.” Just because Facebook requires a sign-in doesn’t mean that the information is not available to hundreds of people. There’s no telling how many of one’s “closest” friends have access to this information.
Other sites are looking at Facebook's example to see if they can get away with similar privacy breaches. We need to draw a line in the sand—making clear that the wish lists of corporate advertisers must not come before the basic privacy rights of Internet users.
This fight is about more than just Facebook users. Sites like Facebook are revolutionizing how we communicate and could transform how we organize around issues together in a 21st century democracy. The question is: will corporate advertisers get to write the rules? Or will these new social networks protect our basic rights—including privacy? This is fundamentally about the future of the Internet as a public space.
Demonstration of new Facebook feature:
Facebook group "Facebook, stop invading my privacy!"
Facebook description of Beacon feature:
Facebook responds to MoveOn criticism of ad program