It took the social networking a site a long time - and a class-action law suit - but Facebook finally, and at last, is terminating its reviled, intrusive and distrusted "Beacon" advertising system. Martyn Warwick reports as the light dims and users cheer.
Beacon has been contentious since it was first launched back in 2007. It was designed with one simple and single purpose in mind - to track the activities of Facebook users on 42 (count them) so-called "partner" web sites and then send reports of their web browsing habits to users "friends" in the hope and expectation that such referrals would increase sales for the participating sites.
That was bad enough but what really riled Facebook aficionados was the fact that users had to "opt-out" of the system (seemingly a deliberately byzantine and lengthy process) rather than opt-in. In other words, Facebook and its commercial "friends" were relying on user ignorance and inertia to boost income in much the same way that banks and insurance houses do.
Before long though Facebook was being deluged with complaints from angry punters who claimed that the tracking was intrusive, illegal and a breach of privacy. Many alleged that Facebook was routinely sharing confidential user information without consent and in direct breach of various data protection and privacy laws.
Facebook, of course, denied this but the allegations and complaints continued, as did the bad press, and in the end, Facebook's top brass were forced to change the system to allow users to turn it off and CEO Mark Zuckerberg even went so far as to apologise. However, this turned out to be little more than a cynical sop.
Those that did opt-out soon found that they had only terminated connections with one partner site and not the entire pernicious system.
The idea behind Beacon was that by feeding the personal data on individual Facebook users to partner websites and then dotting Facebook updates and photo pages with details of sites users had visited and bought from these "trusted referrals" would prompt Facebook friends into buying the same of similar goods and services from the websites their friends had visited.
In blunter terms and shorn of the marketing hype, it was an unholy alliance of ID appropriation and tracking in combination with data mining.
Several users began a class action lawsuit against Facebook in August of last year and now, 13 months later, the company has capitulated, is dousing Beacon and is setting up a US$9.5 million "settlement fund" to, get this for hypocrisy, "promote online privacy".
Incredible. But that's not the end of the story. Facebook isn't giving up on the prospect of leveraging its way into users wallets and, as one door closes another one opens.
The company is going into partnership with marketing agency Nielsen to develop an "opt-in" polling system that will focus on users' purchasing preferences and determine how they respond to different forms of advertising. The programme is called "Nielsen BrandLift" and sounds a bit like a bra that pushes up and separates. Seems appropriate.
A pres release says, "Nielsen BrandLift measures aided awareness, ad recall, message association, brand favorability and purchase consideration via a set of short, specially designed one or two question surveys. The surveys collect the information marketers need as a seamless part of the Facebook user experience."
That's OK then,
For its part, Facebook claims Neilsen Brandlift will not aggregate data that can be traced to individuals and that it cannot be used to target advertising directly to specific users.
If that's the case, one might ask why Facebook is going to all this trouble and expense. meanwhile, users, justifiably, will remain wary and suspicious.
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