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Facebook turns out light on Beacon

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The light has finally gone out on Facebook Beacon, the user-data-sharing ad system that creeped out so many netizens after its launch in the fall of 2007. But Mark Zuckerberg's social networking empire has other schemes for squeezing dollars from user data.

In agreeing to settle a year-old lawsuit over Beacon - which raised the ire of privacy advocates by tracking users' activity on third party sites and sharing it with their Facebook friends - Zuckerberg and company have resolved to extinguish the system, while creating a $9.5m foundation to promote online privacy.

The lawsuit was filed in August 2008 on behalf of a several Facebook users, naming not only Zuckerberg's outfit but several retailers who had partnered with the social networking site on Beacon, including Fandango and Overstock.com. Beacon would record, say, the stuff you bought from Overstock, before sharing that info with friends as a "trusted recommendation." The suit claimed this was done without the user's consent.

In the beginning, the system was on by default. And though users could opt out of the tracking on particular sites, they couldn't turn the whole system off. Under pressure, Facebook later switched to an opt-in setup, but the damage was done. And now the service is on its death bed.

After the Beacon fiasco, the company launched Facebook Connect, an opt-in service that let users share their Facebook info with other sites. This too shares user data between sites, but unlike the original Beacon, it puts the user in the driver's seat.

On top of this, Facebook has reinvented itself as an online polling machine. Today, the company announced a new deal with Nielsen that will see the research outfit conduct (opt-in) polls on the site's home page in an effort to gauge the effectiveness of ad campaigns and tweak them accordingly. The program's initial incarnation is dubbed Nielsen BrandLift.

"Nielsen BrandLift measures aided awareness, ad recall, message association, brand favorability and purchase consideration via a set of short, specially designed one or two question surveys," reads the press release. "The surveys collect the information marketers need as a seamless part of the Facebook user experience."

The way Facebook discusses the deal, one is left to assume the surveys will merely aggregate data so that advertisers can get an overall sense of how an ad campaign should be tweaked. One questions how useful that would be, given that Facebook's 300 million users are hardly a homogeneous audience. Presumably, the pools will be targeted to specific types of users.

Facebook tells us that the survey data cannot be used to target specific ads to specific users and that the program will not collect any personally identifiable data - which could mean anything.

In any event, the polling system is opt-in only. After Beacon, it couldn't be anything else. ®

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Facebook.

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