Facebook's Beacon 'returns' for some bloggers

Beacon advertising system at the centre of a blogosphere brouhaha.

Facebook's Beacon advertising system found itself in the midst of a blogosphere brouhaha Thursday after two Facebook developers posted about Beacon "returning" to the social network and its partner sites.

The only problem: Beacon never went anywhere. It has been operating with about 30 partners since it launched in November 2007.

The blogosphere dust-up began this week after two different Facebook developers signed up for a fantasy football team on CBSSportsline -- a partner of Facebook Beacon since its launch -- and saw a pop-up window noting that their sign-up was being sent to their Facebook profile. The pop-up also offered them the option of declining to have the information added to their profile, where it could be shared with their other Facebook friends as part of Beacon.

The Beacon system came under fire late last year when it was revealed by a security researcher that Beacon was tracking users' online activities -- even if they had logged off the social network or opted not to have their activities - such as purchases - on Beacon partner sites broadcast to other Facebook users.

Facebook agreed to allow users to opt out of the system, which helped allay some users' privacy complaints.

But, Tom Kincaid, a Facebook developer posted Wednesday on Facebook's developer forum about joining CBSSportsline fantasy football and getting the Beacon pop-up. "It looks like the old Beacon stuff," he wrote. "I thought that didn't work anymore, but it published a story to the home page. I didn't go through any kind of connect log-in, it must have used the Facebook cookie somehow."

Another Facebook developer, blogger Jesse Stay, subsequently tried to sign up for fantasy football and got the same notification. "Looking at the source reveals this code, confirming this is indeed the comeback of Beacon," Stay noted.

Though he later noted that Facebook had never stopped operating Beacon, that didn't stop other tech bloggers from posting about Beacon's sudden return to the forefront.

TechCrunch's Don Reisinger noted that "Beacon is Baaaaack" and wondered if the "sighs and groans" of Facebook users were mounting with this recent "discovery" of Beacon. And Mashable's Mark Hopkins, questioned whether the posts meant "a return to the dreaded Beacon."

Facebook noted in a statement to Computerworld that Beacon never stopped operating. "Since late 2007, Beacon has been available on dozens of participating sites after we made a series of improvements to ensure that users have control over what information is shared to their friends on Facebook," the company said. Facebook provided users with two opt-out choices. They can pick a global opt-out so that none of the participating partners can record or share data about their activities or they choose site-specific opt-outs. This option prevents those sites from sharing information about a user's activities with their Facebook friends.

Stay went on to note that because Facebook now asks specifically whether Beacon can add the information from a partner site to a user's feed, Facebook "may be doing it right" this time.

"Facebook has mentioned before that they are approaching revolutionary new methods of advertising to better monetize their network," he added. "I believe this may just be the start of doing so."

Nick O'Neill, who writes about Facebook, went on to note that while Beacon never disappeared, users might not have noticed its presence. Facebook in July launched Facebook Connect, which he said will function similarly to Beacon. Facebook Connect allows users to take their Facebook account information and friends to any third-party Web site, desktop application or device.

"While it doesn't work exactly like Beacon, Facebook Connect will let anybody add Beacon-like features to their site," O'Neill noted. "The only difference is that a suspicious looking pop-up at the bottom of the site doesn't randomly show up when you visit a site. Instead you will be forced to log-in and grant access to the site you are visiting."

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Heather Havenstein

Computerworld (US)

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