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Facebook announces modifications to Beacon advertising program

Following protests from disgruntled users and concerned activist groups, the social network has altered the ad application that shares third-party partner information.

This post has been updated to clarify the names of companies participating in the Beacon program.

Facebook has altered its controversial "Beacon" advertising program, following complaints by users and protests from activist groups like MoveOn.org. The Beacon ads, which project Facebook users' activity on third-party partner sites--retailers like Blockbuster and eBay, for example--to their friends' "news feeds," are a key part of Facebook's much-hyped new social-advertising program, but they hadn't received the friendliest of reception.

It's a situation reminiscent of the one last year when the initial launch of Facebook's News Feed provoked extensive user protests, resulting in a profuse apology, and the installation of stronger privacy controls.

This time around, MoveOn and a group of dissatisfied Facebook users had taken on the allegedly invasive Beacon ads, claiming that they were not only a violation of user privacy that was difficult to work-around, but also was responsible for spoiling a handful of holiday surprises when online shopping lists were published on news feeds.

On Thursday evening, under heavy pressure from users, Facebook made some alterations to Beacon: "We appreciate feedback from all Facebook users and made some changes to Beacon in the past day," a statement from the company read. "Users now have more control over the stories that get published to their Mini-Feed and potentially to their friends' News Feeds."

The central tenet of the alterations, according to the statement, is that "no stories will be published without users proactively consenting." To that end, the pop-up window that informs a user that a third-party site action will be sent to Beacon has been changed; users need to click an "OK" button before the information is delivered and posted to Facebook. If the user does not act, the notification will go away until a future Beacon pop-up appears--it will contain both all older, unapproved notifications in addition to the new one. Finally, Facebook has expanded the user help section that deals with Beacon, and links to it on every pop-up notification for the program.

"We recognize that users need to clearly understand Beacon before they first have a story published, and we will continue to refine this approach to give users choice," the release read.

There is still no way to universally opt out of participation in the Beacon program. Representatives from MoveOn, who had been lobbying for at least a universal opt-out and ideally an opt-in to the program, nevertheless claimed "victory" in their campaign. "If Facebook changes their policy so that no private purchases made on other websites are displayed publicly on Facebook without a user's explicit permission, that would be a huge step in the right direction," MoveOn spokesman Adam Green said in a statement, "and (it) would say a lot about the ability of everyday Internet users to band together to make a difference."

Facebook stressed that it is actively protecting user privacy. "Facebook is not sharing user information with participating sites and never sells user information," the statement on Thursday evening emphasized.