Study About The Facebook Beacon System Computer Science Essay

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One cannot help but agree with the popular adage "One picture is worth a thousand words". .People who graduate from institutions want to communicate with their friends as well as be able to see how they are doing over the years ,some employers set up groups to see the profiles of people before they are employed, families get reunited by seeing familiar faces and names and so on. All these have been brought to reality by a social utility that enables friends, families as well as other groups communicate effectively with one another through pictures, videos, blogs, chats, messages, posts and links called "FACEBOOK". It was founded February 2004 and has been ranked the second most known site in the world, with over 500 million active users, over 2000 employees and over twenty-two offices worldwide. Statistically, over 200 million active users log on and communicate through their mobile devices, an average user is connected to approximately 80 community groups, pages and events, over 30 billion pieces of content  such as picture albums, blogs, pages and links are circulated monthly  and over 2.5 million websites have been successfully integrated with this social site.Facebook products and services include Facebook, Facebook Beacon, Facebook Connect, Facebook Groups, Facebook Inbox, Facebook Platform and Facebook Support.This wiki will focus on Facebook Beacon System.

FACEBOOK BEACON SYSTEM

2.1 The Facebook beacon system as presented by Facebook and their partners

Beacon, was an advertising software system launched by Facebook in November 6, 2007.It was presented as a system for websites to integrate and advertise their products and services to Facebook users . It was designed to enable users share their activities on some websites with their Facebook friends. Forty - four websites, majority of which include AllPosters.com, Blockbuster, Bluefly.com, Busted Tees, CBS Interactive (CBSSports.com & Dotspotter), CBS Interactive (CBSSports.com & Dotspotter), Citysearch, CollegeHumor, eBay, echomusic, ExpoTV, Fandango, Gamefly, Hotwire, iWon, Joost, Kiva, Kongregate, LiveJournal, Live Nation, Mercantila, National Basketball Association, NYTimes.com, Overstock.com, Pronto.com, (RED), Redlight, SeamlessWeb, Sony Online Entertainment LLC, Sony Pictures, STA Travel, The Knot, TripAdvisor, Travel Ticker, Travelocity, TypePad, viagogo, Vox, Yelp, WeddingChannel.com and Zappos.com were part of the system. It was an "opt-out" system rather than an "opt-in". Beacon enabled Facebook users to post on their respective profiles, their activities such as online purchases, movie bookings; video/game trails businesses, and so on done on any of the websites integrated with Facebook . The beacon program in turn circulates the information to the users' "targeted" friends on Facebook for viewing and if possible future transactions with them . This was typically for wider spread of their products and services; it was a major marketing strategy. The concept was majorly exciting for  Chuck Davis, CEO of Fandango and Gary Briggs, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, eBay North America who expressed their utmost satisfaction. Chuck Davis said "People love to share movies with their friends. When it comes to movies, everyone has an opinion. Fandango is excited to be selected as one of the first sites to implement Beacon, allowing Facebook users to share the excitement of movie-going with their friends." Gary Briggs also expressed this by saying "Beacon offers an interesting new way for us to deliver on our goal of bringing more bidders and buyers to our sellers' listings. In a marketplace where trust and reputation are crucial to success, giving sellers the ability to easily alert their network of friends - the people who already know and trust them - to an item for sale has the potential to be a powerful tool."

How Facebook Beacon System Works

A web beacon is a form of tracking technology that directs user information to another website. It differs from cookies which stores the information in the user's web browser. It is capable of sending relevant information such as IP Address of the system used, the type and version of browser, where the user is at the point of sending the message and so on. After any activity has been done by a user on any of the websites linked, the information is sent from the website to Facebook servers. If the person is a Facebook user, a prompt is displayed to ask the user if he/she will like to share their recent activities with their other friends. If they do, all their friends on Facebook can access this information through the News Feed or Mini-Feed Stories . If they click "no thanks", this will not be shared. However, there was an issue with the latter. Before the user could select this option, the dialog box disappears. This could only be avoided if the user speedily opts out which was most of the time was not the case. This eventually meant that the information will still be shared with other friends on Facebook .

2.2.1 Figure showing how Facebook Beacon works

2.3 Issues of Concern Generated from the Beacon System

Four issues of concern evolved which include User Privacy, User Relationships, User Benefits and Data Protection .

2.3.1 USER PRIVACY

Two major illustrations have been shared as regards this issue, one of which a law suit was filed. Other illustrations had been expressed; however, the two below were the highly cited.

2.3.1.1 The first illustration

Sean Lane wanted to surprise his wife with a Christmas present. He bought this from Overstock.com, one of the beacon partner websites. To his surprise after purchase, this website had shared the information with all his confirmed friends on Facebook, some members of his organisation, 500 classmates from   Columbia University and most painfully "his wife" with the statement "Sean Lane bought 14k White Gold 1/5 ct Diamond Eternity Flower Ring from overstock.com".This was the origin of the class action lawsuit Lane et al.v Facebook which will be discussed later.

2.3.1.2 The second illustration

Charlene Li purchased a coffee table from overstock.com using her personal email address. She had two Facebook profiles, a personal one and a public one. She logged into Facebook using her public Facebook profile and to her dismay, "Charlene bought Badin Square Coffee Table and one other item at Overstock.com" was displayed at the top of her new feed. She argued that when the table was bought at overstock.com using her browser, an Overstock cookie was created, which later passed the information to Facebook. Facebook in turn ran a check to confirm if the same browser was used for log in and if that was the case, it displayed the information. This means that if anybody else had logged in using the same browser into Facebook, Charlene's information would have been displayed. Charlene Li expressed her deep concerns by saying "Imagine my horror if items were added to my Newsfeed because my kids were using my computer ("Charlene played Dragon Fable last night for 3 hours".

From the above unfortunate cases, it is very obvious that there is no form of privacy whatsoever. Take for example, another illustration whereby a strong Muslim believer who had no nerve to tell his parents and family members he had given his life to Christ and became a Christian, liked a church advertisement thereby accepting "I love Jesus" on one of the websites. Imagine what will happen if all his family members and friends viewed "Mubarak loves Jesus and has given his life to him forever" on their news feed. This could in fact get him killed!

2.3.2 USER RELATIONSHIPS

There is supposed to be a customer-business relationship peculiar to each customer. It is not right ethically for a company in which trust has been built advertise all items bought by a customer to a third party .

2.3.3 USER BENEFITS

It cannot be denied that convenience is provided through online banking. However, there is more harm than good in the case of beacon. Facebook and the other advertising systems get the profit for the business transactions. This is not in any way shared with Facebook public . It is also very annoying that even people who are not interested in seeing different activities done by others such as things they bought, games they played etc end up seeing it! This brings the real question into play, of what benefit is Facebook Beacon to users?

2.3.4 DATA PROTECTION

Leah Pearlman in his announcement on November 7th, 2007 stated that user information will never be sold by Facebook to any third party and that each user will always have proper dominance over the information distributed .The question however remains: how is it that the partnering websites market to a  targeted audience ?

2.4 The First Intrusive Deviance of the Beacon System

A great number of critics arose from Facebook users after the launching of the beacon system. Users were upset that their activities were published without due authorization. The users of Facebook could disable the feature, however, this meant that they had to go to each website one after the other to get this done through the privacy control. The task was tedious as a result of the large number of partnering sites. In addition, the information was shared by default, which meant that uninformed users will have their information distributed. A group of organization called MoveOn.org which is involved in political and civic actions created a Facebook group called Petition: Facebook, stop invading my privacy! .It was intended to drive the notion that user privacy must be highly regarded.It started with one  member but amazingly in the space of 9 days, 49,999 members had been added to the group..Under the pressure of MoveOn.org and lawsuits which occurred, Facebook decided to introduce a new feature permitting the users to disable the feature of the beacon system of the websites directly on Facebook

2.5 Further Crisis

Despite the privacy awareness and the measures taken by Facebook in order to reassure its users about their privacy, the functioning of the beacon system was considered more intrusive than expected.He inspected the network traffic created by the websites using the beacon system and discovered that the activities done on the websites are sent to the Facebook servers even if the user disabled the feature. In fact, the information was not displayed on the Facebook profile of the user but was still sent to the Facebook server. He also found out that a user who had never signed up on Facebook or who had deactivated their account was also concerned by the intrusive feature of the beacon system . The IP addresses were sent to the Facebook servers instead of the information about the Facebook account of the user. Logically, once the IP address is known, the user can be located.

3. CLASS ACTION LAW SUITS AGAINST FACEBOOK

A major lawsuit was filed known as "Lane v. Facebook" in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California

In addition, another lawsuit was filed against one of the partner sites using the beacon system "Harris v. Blockbuster" in Texas (Facebook was not named as a defendant here

3.1. LANE V. FACEBOOK

3.1.1 Case Name

Sean Lane, et al. v. Facebook, Inc., Blockbuster Inc., Fandango Inc., Hotwire, Inc., STA Travel Inc., Overstock.com, Inc., Zappos.com, GameFly, Inc

3.1.2 Background

A class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook and seven enterprises which used the Facebook beacon system as seen in section 3.1.1.The basis for the lawsuit was already discussed in section 2.3.1.1 above. The names of the plaintiffs can be found in . The plaintiffs basically represented all the Facebook users (about 3.6 million) that had been affected by beacon partner sites.

3.1.3 Claims

Facebook users' information had been shared without proper authorization hence a bridge in privacy

3.1.4 Alleged Violations

They were alleged with violations of :

Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C. §2510

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. 1030

Video Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. §2710

California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act

California Civil Code §1750

California's Computer Crime Law, Penal Code §502

3.1.5 Timeline of Events

August 12, 2008 -Action Law Suit was filed by Plaintiffs

December 9, 2008-Agreement was reached between plaintiffs and defendants on the claims alleged.

February 1, 2010 - Opting out settlement deadline and for objecting to the settlement

February 26, 2010 - Settlement Hearing

January 15, 2010-Proposed Settlement to Judge Richard Seaborg

March 2010-Class Settlement approved by Judge Richard Seaborg

3.1.6 Case Holding

The settlement between Facebook and the class action group was approved. There was a denial of any mistake which must have occurred agreed a settlement fund totalling $9.5 million with $6 million for attorneys and administrative costs.

3.1.7 Conclusion

This case holding settlement raised a lot of outrage by two non-profit organisations, Electronic Privacy Information Centre and Centre for Digital Democracy which objected by arguing that the plaintiffs had not fairly and adequately represent the interests of the class during the settlements negotiations . They also included that the settlement amount was insufficient. They felt the right judgement could have been that Facebook and the other enterprises involved should have paid $875 millions in liquidated damages with respect to the number of Facebook users who had been affected and the amount of liquidated damages for the violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act .

3.2 HARRIS V. BLOCKBUSTER

3.2.1 Case Name

Harris v. Blockbuster

3.2.2. Background

A Facebook member called Cathryn Elaine Harris filed a class action complaint against Blockbuster which was in partnership with Facebook beacon system in 2008. Blockbuster provides a service called Blockbuster Online which allows customers to rent movies online. The major issue was that the movie title rented was displayed on the customers profile without their authorization. This also took place even when the user had not logged into Facebook .

3.2.3 Claims

The plaintiff claimed that this feature of the beacon system used by Blockbuster violated the Video Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2710. This Act prohibits the videotape service providers from disclosing customers' personal information except a written consent has been obtained from the customer at the time the disclosure .

3.2.4 Timeline of Events

Blockbuster tried to keep the case out of court by invoking an arbitration provision in its "Terms and Conditions". The document prohibited its customer to file a class action against the company and gives Blockbuster the right to change its "Terms and Conditions" without notifying the customer and without the privacy policy restriction .

August 30 2008 -The defendant moved to enforce the arbitration provision by Blockbuster which states in its terms and conditions "all claims, disputes or controversies . . . will be referred to and determined by binding arbitration."

April 15, 2009-Case was filed.

3.2.5 Case Holding

The court concluded that the Terms and Conditions by Blockbuster were "unenforceable and illusory". The individual Arbitration was also denied.To this effect, Blockbuster filed an appeal in which three issues were raised:

"Whether the district court erred in considering Plaintiff's claim that the change-in-terms provision rendered [Blockbuster's Terms and Conditions] illusory, because challenges to the contract as a whole, such as this one, must be heard in the first instance by an arbitrator".

"Whether the change-in-terms provision does in fact render Blockbuster's Terms and Conditions illusory".

"Whether Plaintiffs' other attacks on the Arbitration Clause, which the district court did not address, lack merit".

4. CONCLUSION

Mark Zuckerberg(Facebook Founder) appealed to all Facebook users for all the negativities caused by the Facebook beacon system before it was completely shut down.Facebook has ever since raised more awareness on privacy measures in blogs, posts etc. These include view points on privacy for the digital age; improving transparency around privacy and updates on new privacy tools.This has made users more aware of their privacy rights. Also, a new Facebook service known as Facebook Connect has been said to be evolved from Facebook beacon. This however has better, easily understood privacy controls, and has been marketed for the general public as opposed to an advertising marketing strategy tool for business partnership website clients. This has made it highly successful.

5. QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER THOUGHT

Was it really a "bridge of privacy" considering the fact that when people sign up into any social network, some form of privacy must be forfeited?

Did Facebook truly imbibe professional ethics in its code of practice?

Did Facebook cunningly sell its users information for fame and income?

Can it be right to say Facebook users are addicted to Facebook regardless of whether their privacy is exposed or not as statistics shows a growth rate of 900% from 2007 to date(50 million in 2007 and 500 million in 2011)?

One of the lawsuits alleges include Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, should this have been included considering the fact that it did not appear as an "intentional scam"?

Was it Facebook's fault or the 44 advertising websites' for releasing the information by their customers, that is, Facebook users to Facebook for distribution to third party?

Were the organizations who argued that the settlement from Lane v. Facebook case was not sufficient justified to have said so?

If beacon had not been stopped, will there have been a very negative effect in the community of Facebook users? For example, assassination, suicide etc as information was distributed to users' "friends" all over the globe.

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