The "Facebook Stole Christmas" debacle

Having blogged in a way that might have been interpreted as enthusiastic (it came out less cautious than I had intended) about facebook’s social ads system when it was first announced it seems only appropriate to wade into the furore surrounding the actual implementation.

It seems facebook have caused a considerable amount of upset with the way they implemented their system. Technically it’s very interesting, using some clever javascript tricks (as I link blogged last night) to report your activity on various sites back to facebook. But practically it’s far less impressive as you’ll have to really keep on your toes to even notice what is being reported, and there’s no easy way to opt out of having your activity on participating websites reported to your facebook network.

As covered over at Read/Write Web, that’s upset some people so much that headlines like “Facebook Ruined Christmas” have been doing the rounds and MoveOn.org have launched a petition calling for facebook to change the behaviour. I very much support MoveOn’s action; it’s remarkable that facebook and participating sites aren’t offering users a simple and impossible to miss opt-out, and really each and every notification should require your explicit consent. Facebook’s own privacy page (only accessible with a facebook login) states:

Show your friends what you like and what you’re up to outside of Facebook. When you take actions on the sites listed below, you can choose to have those actions sent to your profile.

Please note that these settings only affect notifications on Facebook. You will still be notified on affiliate websites when they send stories to Facebook. You will be able to decline individual stories at that time.

That sounds good, if poorly worded, but not much like the user experience so many are reporting.

I don’t want to go so far as many have and utterly rule out the possibility that this system could be a good thing. I don’t want my wife to see what I’ve bought her for Christmas, but at some future time it might be useful to see that a friend has bought a tool we could occasionally do with use of, or for them to see that I’ve bought a DVD they wanted to see. Or on a more commercial level, I may want my friends to see that I’ve bought a certain CD (or package of MP3s) as I think they should go and buy it too.

The thing that facebook—like any company—must remember is that privacy should always be the default. It’s never an added extra, and certainly shouldn’t be a workaround only available to the technically inclined. As it is, facebook are lucky that this one started up as slowly as it did, and had better fix it before they start alienating that vast audience of theirs.

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