Facebook Does an About-Face

Users' protests lead the social networking site to change its advertising program.

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After protests across the Web—including on its own social networking pages—Facebook has backed down from its policy that posted information about the shopping habits of its users.

The program, called Beacon, informed Facebook users' friends when purchases were made on certain online retail sites, including Zappos.com, Fandango.com, and Overstock.com. In some cases, friends were even informed exactly what item was purchased, which ruined some holiday gift-giving plans. The group MoveOn.Org Civic Action started a petition, signed by thousands, protesting the program on the grounds that it violated users' privacy.

Previously, Facebook users were able to opt out either by clicking on a box that briefly popped up when they made a purchase or when they next logged into the social networking website (news of a purchase wouldn't go out until the user had logged back in). But many users said they didn't notice the opt-out option until it was too late.

The widespread discontent—the Facebook group that protested the program had 50,000 members—seems to have contributed to Facebook's announcement late yesterday that it would change the opt-out process. Now, users will need to hit "Okay" before news of their purchases is broadcast. Facebook's turnaround was reminiscent of its decision last year to make parts of the news-feed function optional after users complained that they didn't always want updates on their life, including their relationship status, sent to all their friends.

In response to Monday's Alpha Consumer story on the topic, readers expressed their frustration with the Beacon program. "I think Facebook should keep their nose out of people's pocketbooks," wrote Gracie Jones of San Jose, Calif. "What I do and what I purchase is private," one anonymous commenter said.

Robby Stephenson of Pasadena, Calif., said he was irritated after he rented a car from Hotwire.com over the holidays and then discovered that all of his Facebook friends had been informed of his activity. "While it may seem insignificant, my renting a car is a private fact that neither Hotwire nor Facebook should be selling or exchanging with each other," Stephenson wrote.

He complained to both companies and says he may never use either again. The Beacon program, he says, "is akin to having someone stand behind me and make notes about everything I do online."