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MoveOn.org takes on Facebook's 'Beacon' ads

The liberal activist group has selected Facebook's advertising program as its latest target, suggesting that the social-networking site is invading users' privacy and doesn't provide enough safeguards.

Online activist group MoveOn.org is poised to announce a campaign targeting Facebook's "Beacon" advertisements, which post information about users' activity on partner sites (movie rentals, purchases from online retailers) onto their friends' News Feeds. According to MoveOn representatives, the organization considers this to be a "glaring violation of (Facebook's) users' privacy," and has launched a paid ad campaign on Facebook, a "protest group" on the social-networking site, and an online petition to encourage the company to allow users to opt into the program at their own volition.

"The bottom line," MoveOn spokesman Adam Green said in an interview with CNET News.com, "is that no Facebook user should have their private purchases online posted for the entire world to see without their explicit opted-in permission."

It's true that Beacon advertisements are limited to the news feeds of the people on a user's friends list, but Green said that doesn't make a difference. He cited Facebook user testimonials that ranged from members who said their entire Christmas lists had been published on their News Feeds (spoiling many a surprise in the process) to student activists who were concerned that sensitive purchases might show up and result in serious consequences--"If a college kid rents Brokeback Mountain and some homophobic person on his campus sees that, that could be a real problem," he explained.

Beacon does allow members to opt out. But, Green said, that isn't enough for MoveOn, which got its start as a left-leaning grassroots organization. "The opt-out is very well hidden," he said. "It basically pops up for a second and then goes away, and it's on the bottom of your screen when you're purchasing on a totally unrelated Web site, so you aren't even looking for it." He added that there's not a universal opt-out, so members have to repeat the process on each partner site. "Even if you see the opt-out and jump through the hoops of opting out once, that doesn't solve the problem."

Some retailers participating in Beacon say they're familiar with its potential pratfalls, but insist that it will ultimately be a positive development. "I think it's a new technology, and until people get used to it, it might surprise some," said Josh Mohrer, director of retail for BustedTees.com. "We have had a few instances where people were surprised, not necessarily angry, but surprised that their purchase showed up on their Facebook feed...I think when it becomes ubiquitous, which it most certainly will as Facebook things tend to be, that people will get used to it and see it as a good thing."

Mohrer said that he saw where the complaints were coming from. "I think Facebook probably needs to do a better job of warning people about it," he said. "What's bad is that people are probably going to blame the merchant and not Facebook."

Additionally, Mohrer admitted that he doesn't entirely disagree with the concerns of activists who have pointed out potential privacy issues with Beacon. "You should have an option to turn it on," Mohrer added, "not the other way around, especially around this time of year."