Facebook and The Privacy Backlash

For those of who don’t know (ie you don’t read techmeme, techcrunch, and their ilk), Facebook has been the subject of a mini privacy backlash over its ‘beacon’. Just yesterday Facebook made a move to attempt to alleviate some of the privacy concerns

We’ve seen this before. Doubleclick’s acquisition of Abacus in the late 90s caused a huge backlash. We’ve seen Google come under privacy scrutiny as well. The fears expressed in these various privacy backlashes are always overblown.

My view, for those who haven’t been reading this blog for a long time, is that all of this privacy stuff is way over the top. You need to disclose what you are doing and Facebook has done that. You need to give users a way to opt out and I believe but am not sure that Facebook has done that. Certainly the partner sites that are runnning Facebook’s beacon need to disclose and provide an opt out

But beyond that, tracking what we do and reporting it to our friends and using that data to target advertising and content is a good thing. In fact, its why the Internet is getting better and better every day

When the internet knows who you are, what you do, who your friends are, and what they do, it goes from the random bar you wander into to your favorite pub where your friends congregate and the bartender knows your drink and pours it for you when you walk in the door

I would like my friends to know that I just bought tickets to see Daft Punk in early December. It would be great if that news was provided in my mini feed with a link to where my friends can buy tickets the same show

It would be great if the information that I bought a handmade scarf on Etsy allowed a friend to buy me a matching knit cap and send it to me as a gift. You all get the picture

These privacy backlashes do some good though. They keep big companies like Google and Facebook sensitized to the issue. And so we hope that they ‘do no evil’ with this data they are collecting

My point is that there is way more good to be done with this data than evil. I am happy when I see the beacon popping up on my screen these days

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Eric

    Great viewpoint – though I remain conflicted. I recognize the effectiveness of beacon and other ads in my news feed – heck – one can’t help but read them. However, I feel as though Facebook has duped me into consuming online advertising…

    1. fredwilson

      They have to make money. Facebook is a business, not a labor of love.That said, the trick will be making money in a way that serves the interests of their users bestFred

  2. mediaeater

    Woot! behavioral targeting has to be user defined and that not only includes what is sent, but when it is sent, and how. Privacy is your ability to negotiate has this totally been lost to a matching scarf for a hat!? This is (your) valuable “social graph”data who owns that. They do and who you/they share it with.

  3. Giordano

    Hi,the real issue is that pretty much everyone is saying that Facebook should not give users an option to opt-out, but require them to opt-in to take part in Beacon, and have the feature switched off as a default.I agree with that. I´m happy to share my activities with my circle of friends, but I want to be able to decide exactly how, first generally and then case-by-case (you don´t want your Facebook friends to know everything you´re doing on the Net, after all…). If this condition is met, I think it has the potential to be of great service.Cheers, Giordano

  4. Chapell

    I don’t think beacon should be an opt-in program, but I don’t think Facebook did a good enough job ensuring that their Users know about it. Let’s face it – your typical Facebook User isn’t going to expect that their purchases from third party sites are going to end up in their Facebook feed. Maybe in a few months, or a year, when Users get used to it, but not right now. Facebook should have 1) ensured that their website partners communicated this effectively and 2) put it front and center on the Facebook site (at least for the intitial start of the program). If nothing else, bending over backwards to provide unavoidable notice of the program would’ve taken the air out of the advocates sails….

    1. fredwilson

      Yeah it reminds me of the launch of the feed itselfRemember how badly users reacted to that?Fred

      1. Ryan

        Fred,Don’t you think that is precisely the problem? Facebook handled the Feed launch poorly, didn’t learn from it and now they’re handling this even worse. They reacted badly and FB realized they could get away with ignoring that and now they’ve completely overextended themselves.I tried to explain it more in depth this morning… http://www.ryanholiday.net/

  5. Farhan Lalji

    Could this whole thing have been avoided if they had just made the beacon opt in? Doing it automatically just made it seem creepy, like they were trying to pass something by the community.

  6. Druce

    I was at a buddy’s house and showed him Facebook.A few hours later he’s adding videos on Blockbuster and starts seeing popups that it’s sending his selections to my Facebook account.That’s just messed up.If that’s how people are introduced to Facebook they’re not going to be converted.

  7. jen_chan

    Good point. And like all things, there are advantages and disadvantages. And both concepts might be blurred, depending on whose perspective we’re taking from here.

  8. Greg

    I agree that Facebook users should be as public or private as they want with their data, as long as they have decent controls. Beacon controls were something of an illusion and the fact that they pushed it through in a way that differed from how they first pitched it (opt-in) shows me they’re taking their users for granted. Yes, they’re a business that has to make money and not a labor of love. But as a user, my attitude its: that’s their problem, not mine. And if they try to make money off me in a way I’m not comfortable with, I’ll leave. They have and will benefit from inertia, but if it shut down tomorrow, I doubt all but the most obsessive users would shed a tear. They could recreate essentially the same experience on any number of other social nets.

  9. Joe Lazarus

    Personally, I have no problem sharing this type of information as long as the opt-out is easy. It’s not a privacy issue for me. Rather, it’s the fact that Facebook is manipulating the message that is sent to my friends by including ads that suggest that because I purchased, viewed, or clicked on some piece of content, that I’m commercially endorsing it. There’s a subtle, yet meaningful difference in my mind between transmitting the fact that I listened to Daft Punk to my friends vs. including an ad that implies that I listened to them, liked them, and am now endorsing them, when I may have not formed an opinion on the band just yet.Facebook should flip the model. Rather than using my transactions to target ads to my friends, they should use my information to target to me. Include the fact that I listened to Daft Punk – you have my permission – but the Daft Punk related ad should appear on my page, not my friend’s. My friend should see my personal activity without any commercial endorsement unless I choose to include it. To profit from providing that experience, Facebook should monetize my friends pages with data based on the friend’s transactions.That’s a far less creepy solution in my opinion and it’s one that provides better incentives for me to share the data with Facebook and my friends.

  10. PXLated

    The key is giving the user the choice. You make think it’s neat, I may not. And, it should be opt-in rather than opt-out.

  11. dick

    I don’t disagree with you here regarding the privacy issue, however, i predict that you will start to feel differently as more retailers/commerce companies embrace beacon. My mini-feed is already populated with more and more “who cares” contents now like “marc cuban wants you to join his dancing with the stars group” and “joe just bought a coffee table at coffeetables.com”. All that will happen is that people will try to dial this stuff down to zero in an effort to make their news feed more relevant to them and facebook will be forced to try to jam some of it through. They have to make money, but there’s probably a far better social advertising approach than this. When the approach you’re taking degrades as more customers embrace it, something is wrong. When you have to de-spam your mini-feed, that’s very bad.

    1. fredwilson

      Everything popular on the internet gets spammed up. The challenge is in figuring out how to filter out the spamFred

  12. alacrablog

    I don’t disagree that this can make the web better. But there are things you buy (gifts being the most obvious) that you don’t want revealed and if you share machines at home beacon messages can appear in the wrong person’s feed. This happened to me. While I would vote for making it opt-in, at a minimum they need to make opportunity to opt out on a given purchase or message much more obvious. What pissed people off is that it seemed extremely sneaky. Good idea poorly executed at launch.

  13. crawford

    Thanks Fred. Good dose of pragmatism. Way more good than evil, as you say. Happy weekend.

  14. Jerry Neumann

    Is this really so black and white? You say that “I would like my friends to know…” right after saying “when the internet knows…” Which is it?The idea of privacy is not isolation, it’s controlling the level of access to personal information. This is done by class of person and is usually pretty finely grained the more information is revealed. You reveal things to your wife you wouldn’t reveal to your family you wouldn’t reveal to your friends you wouldn’t reveal to your facebook friends you wouldn’t reveal to your LinkedIn links you wouldn’t reveal to your Plaxo address book you wouldn’t reveal on your blog. The problem with Facebook’s system is that they take this gradation out of your hands. You have to go back and get it.Privacy’s not an antiquated privilege, it’s fundamental to the human ability to form meaningful interpersonal relationships. If the internet is going to continue growing in influence in our lives, we internet and marketing people need to start cottoning to that.

  15. brooksjordan

    The opt-in, opt-out issue is easy to solve, and, as Facebook showed, easy to screw up.And I’m happy to let them know wherever I am and what I’m doing it. I encourage it.But more importantly, they’re taking all the juice out of the recommendation, out of the “beacon.”What they should be figuring out is how to invite and entice me to put more of myself into the beacon rather than attaching an ad to it.If “recommendations are the holy grail” they’re going in the other direction.

  16. Ethan Bauley

    Umair made a great point about this logic last week:”I don’t mind Beacon, because it lets Facebook make a buck, and stay in business”.Unfortunately, this isn’t economically valid.Facebook doesn’t need to make a buck – not really. To provide connected consumers with, well, Facebook – as it is today – doesn’t require a lot of cash. Maybe a few million a year…There’s a set of dynamics at work that limit the returns to evil. If the costs of entry are so low, consumers will always have alternatives to evil players; players who are essentially competing by not being evil.So the logic of the argument is backwards. It should be the other way around: “I don’t mind Beacon, as long as it creates value for me, because it’s letting Facebook make a few bucks. Otherwise, I’ll defect to another network”.http://www.bubblegeneration…*********Craigslist, blah blahHe extrapolated on this today…

  17. Dan Phiffer

    This has everything to do with how users perceive the issue, and how sensitive Facebook is to that perception. In the long term it’s about how users perceive that sensitivity. It’s about legitimacy and trust as much as good privacy practices.To your point about Facebook being a social hang out — I come into contact with a wide variety of people through Facebook and I don’t feel the same way about sharing with all of them. I’d sooner abandon Facebook than change online habits that put me in an uncomfortable position privacy-wise.I’ve written more about this, specifically about the “creepiness” factor, on my own blog post: http://dphiffer.tumblr.com/…BTW, am I reading that post you linked to correctly that users must opt-in before the first message gets into their feed from a new partner site? I think that’s a good move.

  18. Jason Devitt

    Discussions about privacy quickly become abstract. That doesn’t make privacy any less important – freedom and justice are abstractions. But most people don’t care about abstract issues, they care about specific problems that affect them personally.The problem with Beacon is that one day you are going to buy something online that you don’t want someone else to know about. It could be a gift for your wife, a Dummies Guide to Venture Capital, tickets for a Journey reunion, whatever. But we are going to see it in your feed or hear about it from a friend who sees it in your feed. And there is nothing you can you do to prevent that from happening, unless you consciously monitor every purchase you make online from this day forward and decide whether or not you want to publish that purchase.Even if nothing bad ever happens, Beacon just added a step to every purchase decision I make at one of their partner sites.So Beacon is at the very least annoying, and it could lead to embarrassment, arguments, or worse. I don’t need to invoke abstract principles. It’s a plain old lousy user experience.

    1. fredwilson

      HmmThose are good points Jason. I would be very embarassed to be caught buying Journey tix!Fred

  19. todd sawicki

    @Fred – Thank goodness someone else is a fan of Beacon. In the end, Beacon is going to a huge hit and likely be the key to monetizing FB effectively. I just think the data they’ll be feeding the news feed from third party sites will be much more interesting then seeing if you got poked yet again.I grokked about it on my blog – http://www.sawickipedia.com