Bye, bye Beacon… and other bad ad ideas

There are ideas that, when you first encounter them, you say, “That can’t possibly be a good idea.”

That’s how I and colleagues at the Berkman Center felt when we saw a preview of Facebook’s Beacon “feature” in November of 2007. Introduced in time for that year’s Christmas shopping season, Beacon used a cookie set on one website (Overstock.com, for example) to display information on Facebook (information that you’d just bought a DVD on Overstock) in your events stream. The geeks in the crowd were nervous because the new feature looked a lot like a cross-site scripting attack, while user advocates like David Weinberger thought the feature represented Facebook either trying to change the nature of privacy or misunderstanding user privacy norms.

Suffice it to say, we thought it was a bad idea. So did Facebook users, who organized online campaigns to protest the feature. Some sued the company. And Facebook, as part of the settlement of a class action suit, recently sent a fascinating email to some users. I received it this morning and it reads as follows:

Facebook is sending you this notice of a proposed class action settlement that may affect your legal rights as a Facebook member who may have used the Beacon program. This summary notice is being sent to you by Court Order so that you may understand your rights and remedies before the Court considers final approval of the proposed settlement on February 26, 2010.

This is not an advertisement or attorney solicitation.

This is not a settlement in which class members file claims to receive compensation. Under the proposed settlement, Facebook will terminate the Beacon program. In addition, Facebook will provide $9.5 million to establish an independent non-profit foundation that will identify and fund projects and initiatives that promote the cause of online privacy, safety, and security.

For full details on the settlement and further instructions on what to do to opt out of, object to, or otherwise comment upon the proposed settlement, please go to http://www.BeaconClassSettlement.com.

Please do not reply to this email.

Commenting on the settlement – which doesn’t pay affected users anything (fair enough – it’s a mostly free site), but creates a new non-profit foundation to work on online privacy issues – some have noted the irony that you need to choose to opt out of the class should you want to retain your right to sue Facebook over Beacon. (Part of the frustration with Beacon is that you had to choose to opt out of the system and it wasn’t especially easy to turn it off…)

I’d add another irony. As David Weinberger suggested, privacy norms are changing online. I shopped on Overstock.com for the first time in a couple of years, looking at birthstone jewelry to give my wife as a congratulatory gift for giving birth to our child. I bought a necklace… which proved to be sorta chintzy and ugly, and which I promptly returned. I’ve run into a dozen Overstock ads on different sites, each of which urges me to repurchase the ugly necklace I rejected, or similarly dreadful blue topaz jewelry.

It’s the same sort of cross-site behavior I found so uncomfortable in Beacon, though it’s not using the cookie information to publish on my behalf, simply to (ineptly) target ads to me. Perhaps David’s right, and Facebook has succeeded in changing social norms around purchasing. Or perhaps most of us are so good at ignoring web ads that it hardly matters that Overstock is taking what it knows about us and displaying it on other websites.

Perhaps it’s just that I’ve discovered that I really dislike blue topaz, but I can’t help thinking every time I see an Overstock ad, “That can’t possibly be a good idea.”

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