Facebook Instant Personalization Protested by EFF, MoveOn.org

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-05-02

Facebook continues to take heat for its "instant personalization" feature, which the company launched earlier this month to enable the social network to share users' profile data with third-party partner Websites.

To protest instant personalization, MoveOn.org has, in no small amount of irony, added a Facebook group petition page with the header, "Facebook, respect my privacy!" The Electronic Frontier Foundation chimed in by putting up a timeline showing the social network company's regression in privacy practices.

Instant personalization is the company's ambitious effort to break down the barriers between normally walled off Websites by getting them to share user information with Facebook and vice versa.

By getting many of its 400 million-plus users to share more information about their personal preferences, their likes and dislikes between external Websites and the social network, Facebook can better target advertising at a time when social sites are looking to create the next Google AdWords, the premier digital ad program.

To date, only Yelp, Pandora and Docs employ instant personalization, which is in beta.

Here is how it works: As long as users are logged into Facebook, these sites can personalize the users' experience using public Facebook information. When users visit an instantly personalized site, the partner can use public Facebook information, such as name, profile picture, gender and connections, to personalize the experience.

The Website will ask a user's explicit permission to use any nonpublic info. Each instant personalization partner is required to display a blue Facebook notification at the top of its Website when users first arrive at the site.

To be fair, Facebook has been nothing short of transparent about the way its social plug-ins and personalization plans work, but that hasn't stopped privacy watchdogs and consumer advocates from raising the cautionary flags on behalf of Joe Consumer.

On its new Facebook group, Moveon.Org wrote: "Did you see what Facebook is trying to do? They've launched a new program that shares info about you and your friends with external websites-whether you want them to or not. They're calling it 'instant personalization.' We're calling it a major violation of your privacy. Again."

The "again" scenario MoveOn.org is referring to is Facebook Beacon, the now dead social advertising program that exposed information about users to others without seeking their permission.

Facebook users viewed this as a gross violation of their privacy, and MoveOn.org created a petition to oppose Beacon signed by more than 50,000 people. Ultimately, the opposition forced the Website to backtrack before settling a class-action lawsuit.

MoveOn.org's petition, signed by 43,000 members through April 30, can be accessed here. For those who want more information about how instant personalization works and how to block it, users may go here

The EFF got more creative, delving into the Web's deep archives to uncover Facebook's privacy policies going back to 2005, when the Website was known as Thefacebook and "no personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings."

EFF senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl wrote April 30:

"When it started, it was a private space for communication with a group of your choice. Soon, it transformed into a platform where much of your information is public by default. Today, it has become a platform where you have no choice but to make certain information public, and this public information may be shared by Facebook with its partner websites and used to target ads."

Facebook defended instant personalization as a move to make the site more social in an e-mail to CNET April 30:

"Instant personalization isn't surfacing anything you couldn't already do on these sites. You can find your friends on Pandora and Yelp through contact importers regardless. Many people were already sharing their names with Yelp and their favorite artists with Pandora. Instant personalization just removes a step and makes your friends, their actions and interests more prominent on the sites."

The protests by the EFF and MoveOn.org come just days after U.S. Senators Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Al Franken and Mark Begich sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking the company to revisit the instant personalization tool.

The senators April 27 requested that Facebook keep user information private by default and make sure it can only be shared with third parties if the user opts in.


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