Facebook partners quiet on Beacon fallout

Many of the companies that were part of the launch of Facebook's new advertising platform intend to continue, despite privacy concerns.

Many partners in Facebook's Beacon seem reticent to address the raging privacy controversy surrounding the ad program, resorting to terse, vague statements or opting for outright silence when asked for comment.

The partners seem to be betting that the furor over Beacon's broad ability to track visitors to their sites will die down, and that they don't need to elaborate on their participation in a program many see as intrusive.

IDG News Service attempted to contact most Beacon partners via e-mail, phone or both, but many either never responded or limited their remarks to prepared statements that ignored the privacy questions posed.

The lack of comment contrasts sharply with the Beacon launch a month ago, when the partner companies expressed support for an ad system that has since been pelted with criticisms from privacy watchdog groups and concerned individuals.

More than 30 organizations, including Blockbuster, Sony Online Entertainment, eBay, The New York Times and IAC, pledged to implement Beacon in 44 of their Web sites.

Over the past week or so, IDG News Service asked most partners whether they have implemented Beacon, and, if so, which actions Beacon tracks on their site or sites. They were also asked whether the privacy controversy has caused them to alter their original plans for Beacon, and, if so, how. Finally, partners were asked how comfortable they are with Beacon's broad scope of user tracking on their sites and whether they alert their users that some of their actions will be captured by Beacon and transmitted back to Facebook.

Based on the responses of partners who cared to comment, it seems partners' views of Beacon range from cautious optimism to open disappointment. Those who have turned on Beacon have started with very simple implementations. None seem to be embracing it wholeheartedly at this point, which brings up the question of whether Beacon will ever truly deliver the benefits to advertisers that Facebook has promised.

Part of what Facebook calls Social Ads, Beacon tracks certain actions of Facebook users on partner sites in order to report those actions back to users' Facebook friends network. For Facebook, these notices represent what it considers an innovative and ultimately more effective form of online advertising that leverages the deep social connections of its users.

Soon after its launch, Beacon got blasted by privacy advocates who charged that the program was too confusing to manage and opt out of. As a result, Facebook has modified Beacon twice to make its workings more explicit and simplify the process of opting out.

However, Facebook hasn't indicated that it intends to address what is probably the biggest privacy concern with Beacon right now: That Beacon tracks all users in the affiliate external sites, including logged-off and former Facebook members and even non-Facebook members, and sends data back to Facebook without alerting users nor asking for their permission. Beacon also reports back to Facebook in the case of logged-in Facebook users who declined having their actions broadcast to their friends.

These findings, later confirmed by Facebook, were initially disclosed by a CA security researcher who has been conducting independent tests on Beacon. The findings contradicted Facebook's previous responses regarding questions about Beacon's extent of user tracking and data reporting.

The CA findings expanded the scope of Beacon privacy concerns beyond Facebook members to potentially all visitors to the partner sites. As such, the CA research has prompted questions of whether Beacon partners have a responsibility to alert visitors to their Web sites that some of their actions will be captured by Beacon, even if they aren't Facebook members.

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