Facebook’s and Its Apologists Need to Wise Up

It’s taken a while, but the mainstream media has begun to recognize that Facebook is a pernicious manifestation of Web 2.0 hubris, out to deceive and exploit its users in ways that leave them bereft of dignity and privacy.

Facebook’s Beacon advertising system is the ugly underbelly of Web 2.0, a demonstration that at least some web-based communities can be as much about rapacious greed and treacherous dishonesty than about providing users with forums for personal interaction. If there was any innocence associated with Web 2.0, Facebook has killed off the last remnant of it.

Regrettably, Facebook can’t even look it users in the eye and tell the truth about what it’s doing to them. Rather than admitting the obvious, that it’s selling out its users and every last drop of their personal privacy for advertising lucre, Facebook attempts to present the fleecing as some sort of public service — a means of extending the sharing information between users that always has been a hallmark of the site. It’s not the frenzied attempt to cash out that I find appalling; it’s the hypocrisy and condescending cleverness of the whole enterprise.

New York Times reporter Louise Story wrote today about the discrepancy between how Facebook said Beacon would work and how it actually worked:

At Facebook’s Nov. 6 extravaganza to introduce its new social advertising features, I asked the first question after the speech of Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s 23-year-old chief executive. I asked why he thought lots of users would want to have information about their purchases sent to their Facebook friends through the company’s new system called Beacon.

He made it clear that users would be allowed to choose whether to participate, and he implied that the choice would be explicit, or opt-in.

I was surprised then when I saw the first version of Beacon, because it automatically sent your friends information on your purchases on participating sites, unless you acted to prevent it. It was an opt-out program. (Yesterday, Facebook reversed that policy.)

Well, some would say it’s not clear that Facebook has reversed its policy yet. The company is still running some dissembling and misdirection from its playbook of obfuscation. As Henry Blodget suggests, Beacon still appears to be an opt-out rather than an opt-in service, with Facebook evidently concerned that too few users would consent to the latter.

At long last, though, Facebook is getting called to account, by the New York Times, by prospective advertisers (including Coke), and by everybody else who asks only that companies, whether on the web or anywhere else, make their money without resorting to the abuse of the dignity, privacy, and trust of consumers.

Facebook can still grow up and be a responsible corporate presence. But time and advertiser patience appear to be running out, especially if the escapades and legerdemain persist.

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