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.

I Love My Firefox Extensions (Bugger Off, Safari)

I have an old G3 iBook that Martine and I use primarily as a Web terminal. We both use our desktop machines for real work, but it’s handy to have a Web machine kicking around for use anywhere in the house.

Given its vintage, the iBook is a bit slow by today’s standards. It was tolerable, however, until we upgraded to OS X 10.4. Boy was that a disaster. Not only did we lose the brightness controls on the monitor (a widely-reported bug that Apple refuses to acknowledge), it was like pouring cold molasses into the works. Even basic Web browsing is now so painfully slow that the machine is barely usable. Freshly booted, and with only two or three tabs open, it’s functional, but in the real world that’s rarely the working scenario. Despite the various optimizations I’ve done, the thing slows to a crawl and often becomes completely unresponsive for no particular reason.

I was wondering if it was a problem specific to Firefox. After all, there have been reports of Firefox sometimes misbehaving on Macs. So this morning I decided to try using the Safari Web browser instead.

Um. Yes, Safari is “faster,” but it’s extensibility is so limited that I feel like I’m back in 2002. I used it for about half an hour, and I was surprised at how limited and under-thought a few aspects of the interface was. For example, I wanted to add a bookmark, and to create a new folder for it. Duh. Creating a folder is a separate step that you have to do first. As in, there is no option to create a new folder while creating the new bookmark. That’s just retarded.

Then I went looking for extensions, hoping to make Safari mimic my Firefox experience. Um. While there are extensions available, they seem to be geared towards the obscure and ineffable. For example, the Greasekit extension is “an InputManager extension, that intends to emulate Greasemonkey’s custom javascript functionality for Safari.” Huh? WTF does that mean? Then there’s the TabStop plugin, which “displays a warning when you attempt to quit or close a window in Safari that contains multiple tabs.” What? You need a plugin for that? That’s built into Firefox (with the option to turn off if you like).

OK, I’m being ungenerous. I found a few Safari extensions that could be somewhat useful, such as the above-mentioned Tabstop (although that’s really just filling a feature gap) as well as a number of ad blockers and such. But I couldn’t find any extensions that match the ones I use, and love, in Firefox.

For the record, those Firefox extensions include:

Signature

The Signature extension lets you create a bunch of customized, prefabricated text strings for use in Web page text fields. It sounds obscure, but I use it all the time. For example, I have a string that includes the link path to the location of my blog images; when I’m linking to an image I just click the Signature item and then type the file name. I also have one for my YULblog ping codes (there’s no way I can remember them by heart), so every time I make a blog post and want to ping www.yulblog.org, I just click in the “Trackbacks” field in WordPress and insert the Signature item (two clicks). Bingo, ping codes inserted. Even the code for the drop cap that I use as the first character of my posts is a Signature item. Two clicks and all I have to do is type the letter. Very, very handy.

Inserting Ping Codes; Two Clicks

Nuke Anything

Have you ever been trying to read an online article but you keep getting distracted by some annoying animated ad that’s embedded right in the text column? With Nuke Anything installed, you just right-click the item and choose “Remove this object” from the context menu that appears. Bingo, annoying animation is gone. This is particularly handy when you’re at the office and the page you’re reading has “NSFW” images or ads on it. Click click click. Nothing left but the text. Unfortunately it doesn’t work on everything, and it doesn’t work all the time, but I generally find it 80-90% effective.

Stop Autoplay

I tend to load a lot of pages into background tabs, and then go about reading them and dismissing the tabs in a somewhat systematic order. For example, when Darkly Dreaming David puts up one of his awesome linkdumps, I’ll load them all in background tabs, click click click click… and then go through them. This is so much quicker and easier than clicking the link, then going back, then clicking another link, then going back. This is why tabs were invented. Anyway, I absolutely hate it when pages have sound or video files that start playing automatically. Cripes, that’s frustrating! I’ve just loaded up 15 background pages and now three of them are playing audio tracks, so I have to click click click click click through them all, scrolling up and down, to find what’s playing where, and to pause them.

With Stop Autoplay, nothing starts on its own. All embedded audio and video files are represented by a blank rectangle with a small “Play” button in the middle. Nothing plays until you want it to. Brilliant! As it should be.

Annoying Autoplay Ad Stopped Dead with Stop Autoplay

Lots More

I use a dozen other Firefox extensions, but those three are the most useful. I suppose what I really need to do is find a way to roll the iBook back to OS X 10.3 so I can go back to using Firefox. I hope there’s a way to do that without having to reformat the hard drive, but I doubt it. Not that I expect any help from Apple.

77 Drafts

I currently have seventy seven (that’s 77) blog posts in “draft” form. That’s almost a year’s worth if I post at a rate of 1.5 per week. But most of them will never see the light of day because they’ve lost their immediacy or would require too much work to justify publishing them.

Some are merely notes to myself. For example, the title of one is “Atwood said…” and the body contains the rather unhelpful note “re-listen to the interview. She said some things that were blogworthy.” Unfortunately I wrote that so long ago I no longer remember what interview I was referring to. Another is a review of a sandwich I ate in a food court about two years ago. That one’s a bit stale by now.

I also have a transcript of the “full statement” of Judith Regan, the almost-publisher of If I Did It, OJ Simpson’s almost-fictional account of the notorious murders that he seems to have gotten away with. It’s a rambling, 2000 word explanation of why she wanted to publish the book. I have no idea why I wanted to reproduce the statement on my blog, but some clues might lie in my preamble:

I wonder just how much the OJ trial and acquittal contributed to the continuing numbness and cynicism of the American public. When I was young, the idea of a known and unconvicted murderer walking around as a celebrity was absurd. Too unrealistic to even put in a comic book.

It goes beyond OJ; Johnny Cochrane’s celebrity status rose considerably. So the message is not just that “getting away with murder is OK;” it has expanded to “enabling people to get away with murder is OK.” That’s not to say that OJ and others like him are not entitled to a fair trial. The problem is that “beating the system” has become so ingrained as a desirable thing to do that when someone gets away with murder it is seen as something to be celebrated.

I should probably just trash at least half of these drafts. But some are worth saving and working on. But they tend to be ones that require a bit of research and fact-checking, and frankly I just don’t have time for that now. (But stay tuned…)

How To Turn Off Beacon in Facebook

As you probably already know, Facebook recently introduced Beacon, its latest privacy invasion and marketing crapola feature designed to look like a fun “sharing” thing when in fact it is just another monster in the Mark Zuckerberg “monetize everything” world of Facebook.

Here are a few reasons why Beacon sucks and should be banished from Facebook and the Web:

  • Beacon follows an “opt out” design, meaning it is on by default and you have to take action to prevent it from spamming your information around. Lesson number one in Web privacy and ethical marketing is that any sharing of information should be strictly “opt in” (meaning it only shares information if you actively choose to participate).
  • There is a high potential for embarrassment when Facebook tells everyone you know what books you are buying, what movies you are renting, what trips you are planning, and what comments you are leaving on various Web sites.
  • There are already reports of Facebook “ruining Christmas” by announcing (via Beacon) the purchases of people who had planned on using those purchases as surprise Christmas gifts.
  • Taking a bit of raw information (“Bob just bought a book from Amazon”) and arbitrarily turning it into a marketing pitch on behalf of the book, and of Amazon, is a misappropriation of people’s voices and authority. Just because I bought the book does not mean I endorse it or the retailer
  • Linking people’s online identities and their activities without their permission is just plain wrong, and should probably be considered illegal.
  • Facebook is already a noise machine. What possible value is there in announcing to everyone you know that you just bought Jean Cretien’s memoirs, or left a comment on Epicurious, or rated a movie at the New York Times. Do we really need to add more worthless information to the din? There’s sharing and there’s fogging. Crap like this turns the web (and our minds) into fog storms of mass, inconsequential data noise.

Dare Obasanjo posted an excellent article about Beacon and its abuses last week. I suggest you read it if you’re not absolutely clear on why Beacon is a problem. But one thing in particular caught my eye; he quotes Charlene Li, a Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, as saying “I put a lot of trust in sites like Facebook to do the right thing when it comes to privacy. After all, the only stuff that gets out into the public is the stuff that I actually put in. Until now.”

Huh? A grown-up, a principal analyst at a leading market research company, puts trust in Facebook? Facebook was founded, and is run by, a 23 year old hacker and alleged intellectual property thief!

Mark Zuckerberg has “apologized” for the fiasco on the Facebook blog. He also mentions that Facebook has put a new switch in its Privacy settings which (supposedly) turns Beacon off altogether. It’s very easy to do, as you’ll see below.

How To Turn Off Beacon in Facebook

First, go to the Privacy page (you’ll see a link to it in the upper-right corner).

On the Privacy page, click the “Edit Settings” link for “External Websites.”

On the page that appears, check the box next to “Don’t allow any websites to send stories to my profile. Then click “Save” and that should be it.

Note that it doesn’t explicitly say “Turn off Beacon,” but according to Zuckerberg’s blog post, that’s what it does. (But if you trust Mark Zuckerberg, then you’re a bigger idiot than he is.)

Incidentally, during all this furor over Beacon, a lot of people have attacked Facebook and Zuckerberg (rightly so, I would say), but hardly anyone has mentioned the dozens of companies that have partnered into the scheme. A few, such as Coca-cola, Travelocity, and Overstock, have backed out (or at least sidelined themselves) over the privacy concerns, but what about the rest of them? It’s not like Facebook is acting alone on this.