What is Beacon?
A popular social network site, Facebook.com, launched Beacon program in the
early November 2007. Beacon is an advertising tool which was as part of Facebook
advertising platform for all 44 online partners such as Blockbluster, Overstock.com and
The New York Times to track Facebook users’ activities. Beacon recorded Facebook
users’ activities and proactively broadcast to their friends on Facebook once Beacon was
embedded into a partner’s web site. The notification window of Facebook members
would close unless the user opted out Beacon quickly. And the activity data would be
sent to the user’s friends through Facebook News Feed. Moreover, the opt-out notice was
appeared in a small window on Facebook and it disappeared quickly that Facebook users
could not take any action. Moreover, users were not able to reject all sharing on
Facebook, the notification window would appear every time when the user visit the
How does Beacon work?
As shown in Figure 1, Beacon tracks users’ activities on partner sites and would
ask Facebook if the user is a Facebook member (Arrow I). Facebook members would be
asked if their activities appeared and broadcasted to their friends as News Feed on
Facebook through a notification window (Arrow II). No information and activities would
be sent to their friends on Facebook if the user opted out Beacon (Arrow IV). However, if
the user did not opt out, and ignored the opt-out small window, Facebook would store
and take the user’s activity data (Arrow III) and sent the information and broadcasted to their friends on Facebook (Arrow V). For example, if a user rents a movie from
Blockbuster online, Blockbuster will ask Facebook if the user is a Facebook member. If
Facebook responds the question as yes, then Blockbuster will send the movie to the user
rented on Facebook, and Facebook will store its user’s activity data.
How Beacon was involved in privacy issue?
Beacon “captured detailed data along with IP addresses of all visitors on a partner
site” (Martin, 2008, p.8) for both Facebook members and non-members. Moreover,
Beacon decided whether or not to store users’ activities data and broadcasted users’
information on Facebook when Facebook received all the tracking information.
Furthermore, Beacon tracked users even they did not log in Facebook or even after they
logged off their accounts and people who had just opted out Beacon of having their
activities information available to their friends on Facebook as News Feed. Even
Facebook improved the notification window to let its users opt out; users still could not
have the ability to opt out the Beacon service completely. In reality, “users were not
informed that data on their activities was always flowing back to Facebook, nor given the
option to block that information from arriving at Facebook” (Martin, 2008, p.10) The
Beacon program should be considered as illegal and unethical because Facebook linked
people online identities and their activities data without their permission before their
information were shared by their Facebook friends. In addition, there is a high potential
for embarrassment if Facebook users are not aware the work of Beacon service and are
not educated about their privacy settings. There were already reports and criticisms of
“Facebook ruining Christmas by announcing (via Beacon) the purchases of people who had planned on using those purchases as surprise Christmas gifts” (The Blork Blog,
2007) as seen as the example of the lawsuit: Lane v. Facebook.
Lawsuit: Lane v. Facebook
In November 6, Facebook launched the Beacon advertising program as a part of