Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How Facebook Stole Christmas

Bill O'Reilly can howl all he wants about the "war on Christmas." But Facebook has leaped several parsecs ahead of him, making itself into a Grinch so big that the good Dr. Seuss himself would have been gobstopped by the sheer evil magnitude of it all.

How did Facebook manage this? Simply by spoiling the surprise for everybody.

In recent weeks, Facebook has implemented this new "feature" called Beacon. Beacon keeps track of purchases made through businesses that have contracted with Facebook for this service. If you buy a movie ticket through Fandango, or a rental from Blockbuster, Beacon sends around a note to your friends, so everybody will know you went to see American Gangster, or rented Sicko.

This is pernicious enough -- does my conservative boss really need to know I spent Saturday night watching No End In Sight? -- but from a privacy standpoint, it wouldn't be quite so much so if you were given the chance to opt in or out of using Beacon. But, of course, you're not. What you get is a very tiny Javascript link with every purchase -- and a short window of time to click it if you don't want this transaction broadcast to your entire Facebook network. If you don't click that link, your business becomes everybody's business.

And worse: there is no global opt-out on this. You can't just go somewhere that will allow you to bow out of this intrusive feature once and for all. You've got to catch that tiny link and remember to click it -- every single time.

The privacy nightmares are endless -- and already happening. One man quoted in a MoveOn press release said, "It's easy to picture serious consequences: A college student buying a ticket to Brokeback Mountain and his homophobic football teammates finding out on Facebook. Or a battered woman buying a ticket to see Violence Behind Closed Doors when she told her husband she's working an extra shift. Or a not-so-friendly employer learning a staffer has bought a ticket to a screening of Living With AIDS."

But the real brunt of this is a far more common experience that's not nearly so frightening, though far more universal: Facebook is telling people what you bought them for Christmas.

Say you go, unawares, to some business that's made this deal with Facebook, and buy your honey that gorgeous jacket he's been eyeing. Or that expensive Beatles boxed set for your nephew. Or or or. And your Facebook account dutifully puts out the notice to everyone in your network -- including said nephew (and yes, I have a nephew on my Facebook account) -- that "Sara bought a Beatles boxed set from Amazon."

Well, now, that sort of spoils the surprise, doesn't it? But it's already happened. And is happening. Don't let it happen to you.

Protests, of course, have been organized. MoveOn.org has put out a press release, and also set up a Facebook group you can join to protest this absurd infringement on our sacred right to life, liberty, privacy, and Christmas.

This kind of thing should always, always have a permanent opt-out. We have an inalienable right to be the keepers of our own privacy gates, and not just around the holidays. Facebook: are you listening?