Companies Using Beacon Will Undoubtedly be Sued

Privacy policies. They are the walls of separation that protect users from the over-indulging nature of companies and provide strict legal protections for both the user and the company. Privacy policies are generally penned by lawyers who like writing obscure documents that do these things.

Facebook Beacon, as we talked about, is a major privacy violator. Facebook’s official policy on this states that:

When you send an action to Facebook, the user is immediately alerted of the story you wish to publish and will be alerted again when they sign into Facebook. The user can choose to opt out of the story in either instance, but the user doesn’t need to take any action for the story to be published on Facebook.

Putting aside the obvious problems surrounding Facebook’s opt-in/opt-out policy, the real problem lies in the fact that partner companies are sending data to Facebook without permission in the first place. Undoubtedly, it is a violation of their own privacy policies. This begs the question: will some big-shot lawyer come along and file a class action lawsuit on behalf of the 50M+ Facebook users who have fallen victim to this conspiratorial betrayal of their trust and privacy?

Let’s explore some privacy policies to see what these companies are allowed to do as it pertains to third parties and user data.

Hotwire has a policy that allows for third party release of info for specific purposes but stipulates that the firms cannot share the data with other organizations:

Hotwire will also share your information with business firms contracted to provide specific services to us, in a manner consistent with this Privacy Policy. For instance, if Hotwire were to hold a sweepstakes offer on our Site, we may choose to hire a Sweepstakes Administration firm to handle the legal requirements surrounding entrant and winner selection and validation. We also share complete booking data for registered coolExtras members with Affinion Group, a loyalty marketing firm that administers coolExtras rebates. In situations such as this where your data is shared with a third-party firm, these firms are contractually obligated to only use your personal data for the purpose for which the relationship exists. These firms do not have the right to share your data with other organizations or contact you outside the bounds of their contract with us.

GameFly expressly forbids itself from transferring personally identifying data to anyone except in the case of a merger or acquisition or in the case of subpoena or cooperating with law enforcement:

Disclosure and/or Transfer of Personal Information

We may disclose any and/or all personal information about you in the good faith belief that we are required to do so by law, including but not limited to requests pursuant to subpoena or court order, and/or disclosure to local, state, or federal law enforcement, or other government officials pursuant to investigations they are conducting. In addition, in the event of a merger, acquisition, reorganization, bankruptcy, or other similar event, GameFly’s customer information may be transferred to our successor or assign.

Aggregate Information

We may provide our prospective partners, advertisers, and other third parties with aggregate data about members and visitors to the GameFly Website. However, such data is anonymous, and we do not disclose personally identifying information about specific users.

eBay has not introduced Beacon yet, but appears to be angling to do so and also protect itself and its users, something I applaud. Furthermore, their privacy policy explicitly allows for such sharing of information.

Web beacons

A web beacon is an electronic image placed in the web page code that can serve many of the same purposes as cookies. Web beacons are used to track the traffic patterns of users from one page to another in order to maximize web traffic flow.

How eBay protects your privacy with third parties

eBay may work with other companies who place cookies or web beacons on our websites. These companies help operate our websites and provide you with additional products and services. They are subject to confidentiality agreements with eBay and other legal restrictions. eBay does not permit any of these companies to collect personal information using cookies or web beacons on our websites.

While eBay may be angling to protect itself, OVerstock.com has no excuse considering purchases are explicitly banned from being disclosed to third parties not involved in closing the transaction (e.g. credit card companies):

We may collect information actively generated by the purchase of a product or service, such as a payment method. We use this information to process your order and analyze and support your use of the Overstock.com web site. This information may be disclosed only to our staff and to third parties involved in the completion of your transaction, the delivery of your order or the analysis and support of your use of the Overstock.com web site.

Blockbuster is over the top with their privacy policy readily admitting to sharing personally identifiable information:

Blockbuster, its affiliates and franchisees (if permitted by Blockbuster) on occasion may disclose to their business partners certain data, such as names and addresses and the genre of products rented or purchased by Users or Members, so that the business partner may send their own direct marketing communications to Users and Members. Blockbuster will not provide User or Member e-mail addresses to business partners, unless the User or Member has provided express permission to Blockbuster. If you would prefer that Blockbuster not use disclose your personal information to its business partners for direct marketing purposes, subject to legal, or contractual restrictions and legal notice you may opt out of such uses and/or disclosures by (a) checking the appropriate “Opt Out” box in any applicable e-mail communication or e-newsletter, (b) sending an e-mail to blockbuster@custhelp.com (c) writing to us at 1201 Elm Street, ATTN: Online Customer Loyalty, Dallas, TX 75270 or (d) visiting your local BLOCKBUSTER store.

So the problem here is not only Facebook. Facebook pledges to protect these company’s users privacy. My question is… why is Facebook doing the job these companies should be doing in accordance with their own privacy policy. I will go out on a limb right now and say for the record that I will gladly sign on to any class-action lawsuit on behalf of Facebook’s 50M+ users who have had their privacy violated on account of this program. Companies like Coca-cola have wisely decided not to get involved. Others have foolishly determined that they will stay involved.

I guess we’ll let the dust settle on this.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

One thought on “Companies Using Beacon Will Undoubtedly be Sued

  1. I had not realized the situation but agree that its a very thin line. I’m interested in seeing what plays out and am with you… bring on the signing!

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