Build-a-Bear Workshop is cutting-edge as well as cuddly. I previously remarked on it as an example of mass customization.

Now we see that BaB is treading that line between gathering information and invading privacy. Denise Howell (lawyer and blogger, via BB Cory) describes the process of getting a birth certificate for a new-built bear.

Before their new friend can get its birth certificate, the kids are prompted to enter a host of very personal personal information: birth date, home address, gender, phone, and email among them.

Denise saw parent after parent helping their kids provide this information, some of them “the same parents driving themselves to distraction with fear over their evening chardonnays about MySpace and FaceBook.” Picking up on that Facebook reference, it seems that the Bear can be more seductive than the Beacon.

About a month ago, Facebook launched Beacon. Today, Mark Zuckerburg acknowledged that his firm hadn’t been very bright about Beacon.

We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it…

Last week we changed Beacon to be an opt-in system, and today we’re releasing a privacy control to turn off Beacon completely.

Mark’s post hasn’t lacked for links. For example, today’s poll at Mashable is about “Zuckerberg’s apology and associated updates to Facebook.” As I write this, it’s a close thing between “Too Little, Too Late; Facebook’s Screwed!” and “Nobody Cared Except Us Web Heads Anyway!” with “Good Enough for Me; Let’s Move On” in third place. My own vote in the poll reflected the data I recently gathered.

It seemed to me that Beacon was one of the bigger stories of the last week or so. My favorite post title is Om Malik’s To Save Its Bacon, Facebook Weakens Beacon. Fred Wilson is more favorable to Facebook than Om is, and than I am for that matter.

My view… is that all of this privacy stuff is way over the top. You need to disclose what you are doing and Facebook has done that… But beyond that, tracking what we do and reporting it to our friends and using that data to target advertising and content is a good thing. In fact, its why the Internet is getting better.

I decided to talk about this today with my students: undergraduate seniors, business majors, in early 20s, fairly equal divide between the sexes. I passed round a sheet asking each student to indicate: Facebook account (yes/no); and extent of knowledge about the Beacon ad program (scale of 0 to 4, with 0 meaning “huh”?).

Here are the results:

  • Of the 64 students, 55 have Facebook accounts.
  • Each of the 9 non-Facebookers reported 0 knowledge of Beacon.
  • 50 of the 55 Facebookers reported 0 knowledge of Beacon.
  • Of the five who admitted to some knowledge: two students gave themselves a 1; two students gave themselves a 2; one students gave herself a 3; and no student claimed a 4.

When we talked about the program later, some students were a little disturbed, but none seemed outraged. One pointed out that every member has accepted Facebook’s Terms of Use, and that these terms explicitly give Facebook the right to change the terms. One of the students who doesn’t currently have a Facebook account remarked to me as he left that the discussion had helped him realize it was time to get one.

Of course, this isn’t research: it’s just anecdote with numbers. Still, I thought I’d pass the numbers along, and try to capture the tone of the subsequent discussion.

Facebook, Ads, and Privacy

November 10, 2007

Within hours of Facebook’s announcement of its social advertising plans, the backlash began. More recently, there have been posts such as Facebook’s Cruel Intentions and The Daily Poll: Are Facebook Beacon Ads Illegal?

Only about one in five of respondents to the poll consider the ads both legal and respectable. Now, there are good reasons for treating the results of that poll less seriously than those of , for example, the comScore Radiohead report. But, to put it mildly, there does seem to be cause for concern for Facebook and its users.

So, let’s sign on to Facebook, for the first time in weeks in my case! Let’s take a look at our privacy page and see what options it gives us relative to ads. I don’t see any. Let’s search the page. There we are! Oh, it’s a link at the foot of the page in case I want to run ads on Facebook.

Maybe there’s some information about ads on the Privacy and Security help page? No.

One of the ways in which Facebook might address the privacy-focused backlash against its ad network would be to make it easy for users to find information and options about the use of their data in ads.

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