If you're doing your holiday shopping online, there's a chance Facebook knows what you're buying for your friends, and it's telling them too.
A controversial new advertising strategy from the social networking website has raised the ire of privacy watchdogs in the United States after a number of users had their online purchases revealed to their friends via the site's "news feed" message board.
The uproar stems from a new advertising program called Facebook Beacon, which can be used by online retailers to track the spending habits of Facebook users on their sites. When a Facebook user makes a purchase, a message is sent to the news feeds of their friends, telling them what they bought. About 40 companies, including Overstock.com and movie ticket retailer Fandango, have installed the free tool.
A U.S. public advocacy group, MoveOn.org, has launched a campaign to force Facebook to change the policy, calling it a "huge privacy violation."
"People need to trust that when they use the Internet and sites like Facebook that their privacy will be respected," MoveOn spokesman Adam Green said in an interview.
When Facebook users make a purchase at one of the sites using Beacon, a small box pops up in the corner of their Web browser, informing them that their data will be shared with Facebook unless the user clicks "No Thanks." The next time the user signs into Facebook, a second confirmation notice pops up. If the user simply ignores the two notices without "opting out" then consent is inferred.
Users should be allowed to choose whether their information is shared via the Beacon service, and rather than opting out, users should have to "opt in" as they do with most other Facebook applications, Mr. Green said. After being contacted by frustrated Facebookers on Monday, the group launched a Facebook group called "Petition: Facebook, stop invading my privacy!" which already has 6,000 members.
Facebook hit back at MoveOn Wednesday, claiming it "misrepresents" how Beacon operates.
"Information is shared with a small selection of a user's trusted network of friends, not publicly on the Web or with all Facebook users," the company said in a statement. "Users also are given multiple ways to choose not to share information from a participating site, both on that site and on Facebook."
When asked whether Beacon would affect Canadian users, the company replied that, "Whether Facebook Beacon applies to U.S. only or all users is up to the vendor. Generally, Beacon is universal."
With Black Friday approaching - the day after American thanksgiving, usually the biggest holiday shopping day of the year - many users are worried Facebook could ruin the surprise factor of their holiday gift giving. Mr. Green said Facebook's argument that the data would only be seen by the user's friends was "weak."
"Tell that to the person whose whole Christmas shopping list is revealed to everyone they know or to the employee whose employer sees every book and movie they order online."
Analysts have long said that the value of social networks lies in their ability to mine user-generated data to deliver targeted advertising. In October, Microsoft Corp. shelled out $240-million (U.S.) for a 1.6-per-cent stake in Facebook.
With a report from AP