SAN FRANCISCO - Saying it went too far in its pursuit of profit, the popular Internet hangout Facebook is allowing its 55 million users to permanently turn off a new marketing tool that tracks their activities at other Web sites.
The privacy control, announced in a Wednesday apology by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, will likely limit the reach of an application called “Beacon.” The tool is part of a month-old program that the Palo Alto, Calif.,-based startup had hailed as an advertising breakthrough.
Facebook users attacked Beacon as a flagrant violation of privacy. The tool enables Facebook to track its users’ purchases and actions at dozens of Web sites and then broadcast the data on the pages of their listed friends within its social network.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook’s blog. “We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it.”
Empowering users to block Beacon entirely “is big step in the right direction, and we hope it begins an industrywide trend that puts the basic rights of Internet users ahead of the wish lists of corporate advertisers,” said Adam Green, a spokesman for the advocacy group MoveOn.org.
More than 65,000 Facebook users signed a petition that MoveOn organized against Beacon.
Critics remain worried that Facebook and other popular Web sites will deploy increasingly sophisticated technology to shadow Web surfers’ activities in an attempt to tailor advertising more and more specifically.
“The move to allow users to turn Beacon off entirely may restore a small measure of control to Facebook’s members, but it is by no means an adequate safeguard for ensuring privacy protection on this and other social networking platforms,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, promised to continue to press U.S. and European regulators to examine Facebook’s “significant privacy problem.”
Matthew Helfgott, a college student user who was irritated last month when Beacon alerted him about a gift his girlfriend had bought him, was more forgiving.
“I can understand why (Facebook) wanted a program like this, but I didn’t like the way they went behind everyone’s backs doing it,” said Helfgott, 20. “I just hope they learned from their mistakes and do a better job telling their users about important changes like this in the future.”
Although outrage over Beacon attracted widespread attention, it apparently didn’t drive people away from Facebook — the Internet’s second largest social network behind News Corp.’s MySpace.com.
In the week Facebook unveiled Beacon, its Web site attracted 20 million U.S. visitors, according to comScore Media Metrix. More than 22 million came during each of the next two weeks, and nearly 25 million people visited Facebook the week ending Nov. 25.
Facebook hoped Beacon’s marketing feeds would be seen as “trusted referrals” among friends, helping to drive more sales to the sites using the system and eventually generate more ad revenue.