Has Facebook jumped the shark?

"I'm not the only old coot who's had his fill of Facebook."

Or maybe, like the late great Evel Knievel, it tried to jump the Snake River Canyon but suffered an equipment failure halfway over. Either way, I'm over Facebook.

Oh sure, it was fun for a while -- throwing bovine creatures at friends, writing on their walls, keeping up with every damned thing they did or thought every damned day, week after week, month after month.

I'm not the only old coot who's had his fill of Facebook. Mike Cassidy posted a funny essay on the San Jose Merc's site last week in which he said responding to Facebook requests from people he barely knew makes him feel like a sucker (if he says yes) or an a*****e (when he says no). I felt his pain so much that I immediately sent him a friend request -- which he accepted. (Sucker!)

Meanwhile, the Beacon privacy kerfuffle has turned into something deeper and possibly more sinister than first imagined. It's bad enough that Facebook's "social advertising" service revealed people's purchases to their friends without them really being aware of what was happening. According to security researchers at Computer Associates, Facebook is collecting shopping information even when users are logged out of their system and have opted out of sharing their purchases -- violating Facebook's own rules for the app.

Assuming the report is accurate, there are only two ways to interpret it, and neither is good. One is that Facebook is collecting this information and not telling anyone. The other is they're collecting this information and aren't even aware of it -- in other words, Beacon is broken.

So either they're evil, and can't be trusted. Or they're inept, and can't be trusted.

After CA published a report of its findings, Facebook put out the following statement:

"When a Facebook user takes a Beacon-enabled action on a participating site, information is sent to Facebook in order for Facebook to operate Beacon technologically. If a Facebook user clicks "No, thanks" on the partner site notification, Facebook does not use the data and deletes it from its servers. Separately, before Facebook can determine whether the user is logged in, some data may be transferred from the participating site to Facebook. In those cases, Facebook does not associate the information with any individual user account, and deletes the data as well."

If this response sounds familiar, that's because it's essentially what every site or service says after it's been caught with its fingers in the data cookie jar -- Alexa, Real Networks, DoubleClick, take your pick. "We collect the data but throw it out -- scout's honor."

It all comes down to the same thing: Trust us. But having already screwed the pooch once over Beacon, I think Facebook's Trust Fund is pretty much depleted.

Ironically, Evel's last major stunt was an attempt to jump over a shark tank, which ended in tragedy. Beacon is not on the same scale -- nobody's going to die or lose an eye over an online advertising service. But this could mark the beginning of the end for Facebook's wild ride.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld

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