More Problems with Facebook

The uproar over Facebook and it’s Beacon advertising platform has died down somewhat, although that doesn’t mean Beacon is any less of a bad idea. But I thought I’d share a few other Facebook tales for those who aren’t following the story too closely.

Flagrant Violation of VPPA

One of Facebook’s Beacon partners is Blockbuster, the movie rental people. As you know, Beacon reports your online shopping activities to your friends, in effect turning you into an unpaid ambassador for the products you buy and the retailers you buy them from. So when you rent “Battlefield Earth” (because you have a secret attraction to loathsome movies), Facebook informs all of your friends that you have done so.

However, something that wasn’t factored into this diabolical scheme is the U.S. Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 law that prohibits video rental services from disclosing the rental records of its customers unless the customer specifically consents, in writing. Each violation is liable for “civil remedies, including possible punitive damages and attorneys fees, not less than $2500.

Cornell University Law School lists the law under Title 18, Part I, chapter 121,
§ 2710
.

According to New York Law School professor James Grimmelmann, Blockbuster has definitely violated the law, and Facebook has “quite likely” done so. Now that Facebook has made it easier to opt out of Beacon entirely, and has made the opt-in more explicit, it is less clear whether or not the law is still being broken. But for a few weeks, it very clearly was. (Here is Grimmelmann’s post about it at Laboratorium.)

So who’s at fault here, Facebook or Blockbuster? I would say both; Blockbuster bears more liability towards their customers, but Facebook bears liability to Blockbuster. All this begs the question “what were they thinking?” The answer is that they likely were not. Thinking. Or if they were, their thinking was inebriated by the “social networking” intoxicant; the idea that you can pretty much disclose anything about anyone to anyone by simply calling it “social networking.” This intoxicant is predicated on the notion that people will unquestioningly buy into anything that says “online sharing” and as a result, everyone will get rich.

Hogwash.

Problem With Recycled Mobile Numbers

Here’s an odd one. Facebook, along with other social networking sites, are pushing mobile applications in an attempt to essentially have their product follow you around day and night. It’s not enough to have you when you’re sitting in front of the computer; they want you breakfast, lunch, and dinner too, and all times in between.

But a problem can arise when someone cancels their mobile phone after integrating it with a service like Facebook. Before long the number is recycled (brought back into service for a different customer), but the Facebook apps that are tied to it don’t know that the number has a different human attached to it.

Facebook just settled a lawsuit along these exact lines. A woman in Indiana got a new phone from Verizon and immediately started getting text messages that she had to pay for. She couldn’t turn it off because it was tied to a Facebook account that was not her own.

Apparently Facebook agreed to a settlement with the woman and agreed to take measures to allow people to block such messages and to work with mobile providers to try to prevent the problem. They did not, however admit to having done anything wrong.

Perhaps they didn’t. But this brings to the surface some of the potential hazards of just blindly falling into “Facebook app fever” and it highlights the extent to which that fever is pushing half-developed apps that lead people down pit-fall laden roads without any maps.

Now They Want Your Money Info, Too

Given the fact that almost everything Facebook touches turns into a boondoggle or a fiasco, you can imagine how I felt when I read that Facebook is planning to launch an online payment system. It will likely be based on the system behind those retarded “virtual gifts” on Facebook, a system that Nicholas Carson of Valleywag calls “a brilliant Trojan horse strategy: Charge people a token amount for something that costs you nothing, and get their credit-card numbers while you’re at it.”

No thanks. The day I punch my credit card number into any Facebook application is the day you should cart me away to the insane asylum.

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