So the Facebook Beacon privacy train continues to careen down the tracks, braking hard in the turns and doing its best not to come flying off the rails altogether. Already, some of the passengers — including Coca-Cola, a large maker of carbonated sugar-water that you may have heard of — have jumped off the train, saying they aren’t sure that Facebook can salvage the idea and actually produce anything of value for them.
One of the issues for both New York Times writer Louise Story and for Coca-Cola, apparently, is whether Beacon was originally supposed to be — or is now — an “opt in” service. According to her post on the Bits blog, Ms. Story thought Mark Zuckerberg promised it would be opt in, and apparently Coca-Cola got that impression too. To further confuse the issue, Ms. Story now believes that Facebook has changed it to be opt in, but Henry Blodget of Silicon Alley Insider says that isn’t the case.
As I understand it now, Facebook captures your information through a tracking cookie, and will show you what it has captured when you log in to the site, and then ask you whether you want that data to be sent out to your friends through your news feed. That sounds pretty much like an opt-in service to me — but not to everyone. Some say it’s only opt-in if there’s a global “yes I want you to track my info” button somewhere. Mark Zuckerberg seems to feel that by signing up for Facebook, you have effectively opted-in to that idea.
So was Beacon supposed to be opt-in to begin with? According to Ms. Story, her understanding was that Facebook would give users the ability to opt in before releasing their data — but as far as we can tell from the comments made by him and by a Facebook spokesman, they actually meant the opposite: that users would get the ability to opt out, by saying they didn’t want to broadcast the information. If they didn’t opt out, in other words, they had effectively opted in. Confused yet?
About all we know at this point is that Facebook is tangled in a rat’s nest of who said what, and who meant what, and the chorus of criticism is growing louder. As Hank mentions, Moveon’s petition is one thing, but when a major customer like Coca-Cola thinks you’re playing fast and loose with what you promised to do, then you have problems.