Facebook's privacy issue

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As this column went to press, speculation was mounting that Facebook was mulling tweaks to its controversial Beacon widget. The pressure was coming from many directions, ranging from vociferous and frequently effective advocacy group MoveOn.org, to a peevish tech reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Beacon signals to your Facebook friends when you have purchased something from a third-party site — which, as well as being quite a boring concept, also runs the risk of ruining holiday gift surprises.

Spoilers aside, the issue at the core is, of course, privacy, and the question of whether consumers should be required to opt in, or opt out of any programs that involve using their information for purposes that the consumer didn't initially intend.

The Wall Street Journal reporter, Vauhini Vara, pointed out that it took four clicks to decline sharing purchase information from Fandango on Facebook, and only one to accept. Early last week Facebook made the alerts more obvious to users, but they were still left wondering why Facebook — which is perhaps one of the ultimate “look at me!” phenomena of recent years — would push its users, who are already incredibly generous with their information, into the realm of involuntary disclosure.

It's vital that a destination that is set up to give users full, unfettered control of their experience and presence there, works hard to maintain the integrity of that offer. Facebook's challenge, of course, is to find a solution that in equal parts mollifies users, creates value for advertisers (and, as Business Week points out, justifies the $15 billion that the company was valued with Microsoft's $240 million purchase of a 5% stake), and upholds the brand values that Facebook has been so privileged to enjoy.

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