November 24, 2007 |
Within the past two years, Web 2.0 has gone completely mainstream. Much as the World Wide Web was once the near-exclusive playground for college students and early adopters, everything from social networking to Ajax apps are familiar to just about everyone online.
With no signs of slowing down, however, each and every user-driven site, from Web 1.0 online shopping to nifty 2.0 apps like Geni, collects data on its users. Amazon has your credit card information, your purchase history, and your shopping preferences, right down to what you read. Facebook has the schools you went to, the friends you talk to online, and, depending on the Facebook apps you are using, some of the same preferences as Amazon, from movies to music to books. Geni has your family tree, including your mother's maiden name. TurboTaxOnline has your salary and all your taxpayer information. And your banking, credit cards, cell phone bills… all these have your information stored as well. You probably access those online as well. In fact, researchers at Demos, a think tank, estimate that the average person living in a developed country has their personal information stored in approximately 700 databases. The US Border Patrol accesses at least 30 before allowing foreign travelers across the border.
Enough data stored in these databases is already being lost on a regular basis. Stories are in the news daily about records being lost. But imagine what can happen if more and more of those databases are linked.
Facebook launched Beacon earlier this month to some controversy, but probably not nearly enough. MoveOn has already launched a petition requesting that Facebook only allow Beacon to run on user accounts who have opted in. When the site first launched, Facebook said that users would be able to easily opt out at any time, but with the huge amount of holiday shopping taking place this weekend, it's quickly becoming apparent that it's not working as promised.
Beacon can't tell who is actually making a purchase; it only tracks by the computer. Happen to share a computer with a spouse or roomie? You may find, as Charlene Li did, that your PC-mate's purchases are broadcast to YOUR Facebook network. Facebook users are complaining that entire Christmas lists have been broadcast, ruining surprises. And I'm sure no one wants personal purchases, ranging from personal care items to porn, broadcast to anyone, much less potential employers and work associates.
Like a lot of people, I prefer to shop online for my holiday shopping rather than braving the crowds and the elements. Many of the companies Facebook has signed up for Beacon are companies I regularly order from, especially during the holidays, such as Overstock.com. Before doing any shopping, I went into my Facebook privacy settings to opt out, only to quickly discover that I can't proactively set them; I have to wait until I make a purchase from Overstock, hope that I see a warning that they are sending my information to Facebook (and if it's a pop-up, all bets are off since I have them turned off in my browser), and then try to rectify the damage.
My biggest problem with Beacon isn't even the privacy issue, although that's certainly a big one. It's that Facebook is part of what gives Web 2.0 the same "bubble" rep that Web 1.0 had, and the reason that I think there may not be as many survivors if it does burst this time around as well: someone came up with a cool app with no business plan, then tried to structure profit-making around the app. It's the way that many of the Web 2.0 apps come out of the gate: fast and furious, without forethought of how sustainable it will be without income. Now, they are left with a "throw things at the wall and hope they stick" mentality when it comes to paying the bills and satisfying the investors.
In my personal case, it's backfired. Rather than take chances with my privacy (and my shopping list), I'll take my business to retailers who themselves haven't chosen to opt in to Beacon. If it's the only control I have, I guess I have to vote with my wallet.
Update: Thanks to my friend JP for the heads up. For those using Firefox, you can block all Beacon activities. Directions on how to do this are here at Idea Shower. I've also had some interesting conversations with folks messaging me inside of Facebook, and another method of blocking it (which is what I'm doing) is to use separate browsers. I generally use Camino for Facebook but never for any online shopping or banking.