Ethics Paper on Facebook Beacon

Abstract Facebook began in February 2004. It was founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his collegiate comrades at Harvard University. Rapidly expanding, Facebook’s exponential growth led to its membership growing to over one billion users, as of September 2012. One would imagine that with such growth would come more opportunities for challenges to arise: one of these challenges being users and their rights to privacy. As part of Facebook’s advertising system, their primary means of generating revenue, Beacon sent data from other companies and websites to Facebook.

Following a lawsuit, Beacon then changed to accommodate these requests. On December 5, 2007, Facebook declared it would allow users to choose not to participate in Beacon in which the owner of Facebook apologized for the dispute. When approaching a solution to this ethical dilemma, Facebook had a couple alternative decisions they could make. They could leave the Beacon system as it was, they could change the Beacon feature to accommodate requests, or they could delete the feature all together.

Using the various ethical approaches to determine which option was best in determining how to solve their issues; one option would prove most logical. Under the utilitarian approach, choosing to keep the Beacon feature would not be the best decision to make. Changing the Beacon feature to allow users to choose to participate or opt out of using the feature. In the end, with this option, more would be satisfied, making it the best choice under this ethical approach.

Facebook’s overall reasons for changing the feature spanned farther than just making users happy, it dealt with compliance with the law, so I feel that the positive outcomes from the change will outweigh any potential negative outcomes in the future. Ethical Dilemma Facebook began in February 2004. It was founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his collegiate comrades at Harvard University. Initially, the site was aimed at other Harvard students but was eventually expanded its membership to other colleges surrounding the Boston area.

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Rapidly expanding, it then opened its membership to high school students, and finally to anyone 13 and over. Facebook’s exponential growth led to its membership growing to over one billion users, as of September 2012. One would imagine that with such growth would come more opportunities for challenges to arise: one of these challenges being users and their rights to privacy. In an attempt to alleviate fears concerning privacy, Facebook enabled its users to choose from a variety of privacy settings and chose how viewable their profiles are.

Although Facebook requires all users to provide a user name and a picture that can be accessed by anyone, users can regulate what other information they have shared is viewable, as well as who can find them in searches, through those privacy settings. As part of Facebook’s advertising system, their primary means of generating revenue, Beacon sent data from other companies and websites to Facebook, in hopes of permitting certain ads and Facebook users to communicate their activities with their online friends, some of the activities being circulated through the Facebook user’s newsfeed.

The service creates controversy shortly after its launch because of apprehensions concerning privacy and in November of 2007 a group, MoveOn. org, generated a group on Facebook and an online petition requiring that Facebook cease to circulate user activity from other websites without clear and obvious permission. Within fewer than ten days, the group obtained 50,000 members. Following a lawsuit, Beacon then changed to accommodate these requests. On December 5, 2007, Facebook declared it would allow users to choose not to participate in Beacon in which the owner of Facebook apologized for the dispute. Carlson, 2010). Relevant Information Although Facebook, and other social media sites, are very public in the data users can opt to share, Beacon took away a user’s right to choose what would become public. In doing so, they violated user’s rights. This caused a dilemma for the Facebook media giant because they generate revenues through advertisements, which keeps its services free for users. They had to formulate a way to keep their partners, who used Beacon to promote their businesses, while still maintaining a sensible amount of privacy for its users. McCarthy, 2007) It was this right to choose privacy that enabled Facebook to differentiate itself from other social media giants, such as MySpace, in the first place. How Facebook chose to come to a resolution would affect many of the stakeholders in the company. The primary stakeholders that would be affected by this decision would be the Facebook Company, who would want to still generate revenue while still providing this free service for its users, and its users, who wanted to ensure the privacy of their profiles.

Other stakeholders would include advertising companies, who would want to reach the vast amount of Facebook users and increase the visibility of their brand. Other social media sites would be stakeholders, as well, because they could gain the users that Facebook would lose if they did not fix the dilemma, and generate profits as an end result. (Phillips, 2007) Possible Alternatives When approaching a solution to this ethical dilemma, Facebook had a couple alternative decisions they could make.

They could leave the Beacon system as it was, they could change the Beacon feature to accommodate requests, or they could delete the feature all together. Leaving the Beacon feature as it was would have had negative consequences for the company. They would likely feel mass criticism from its users who felt their privacy was violated. With a plethora of free social media sites available to the public, Facebook would risk losing a vast amount of membership and, thus, lose money. The second option Facebook had was to completely get rid of the Beacon feature.

If they chose this option, they would likely have to find a new way to compensate for the revenue that would be lost by doing so. Remember, the main way Facebook was able to keep its services free to users, was to generate revenue through advertisements. In deleting the Beacon feature, Facebook would have to charge on one end: through users or advertisers. Either way, it would be a large amount of revenue that would have to be compensated for in the short time it would take to get rid of the Beacon feature.

The last choice Facebook had would be to modify the Beacon feature to accommodate the requests of those who felt it violated their privacy. Doing so would be an attempt to balance the needs of the Facebook Company as well as the users who felt they needed a greater sense of privacy when dealing with the Beacon feature. Appropriate Standards If the Facebook Company was to use the various ethical approaches to determine which option was best in determining how to solve their issue, one option would prove most logical. Under the utilitarian approach, choosing to keep the Beacon feature would not be the best decision to make.

Under the utilitarian approach, the best course of action would be the one that contributes to the greatest amount of overall happiness. The first option, keeping Beacon how it was, in the end, would only make the Facebook Company and the advertisers happy. Because the sheer volume of consumers greatly outweighs that of the advertisers and solely the Facebook Company, it would not comply with the Utilitarian Approach. The second option, however, would include changing the Beacon feature to allow users to choose to participate or opt out of using the feature.

This would allow the partnership between advertisers, Facebook, and its users, without having to take drastic measures. In the end, with this option, more would be satisfied, making it the best choice under this ethical approach. The third option of deleting the Beacon feature would satisfy users who were concerned about their privacy, but it would leave Facebook with the daunting task of finding new ways to generate revenue. Basically, it would leave one side satisfied, and the other with a great burden.

Therefore, this option would not be best under this approach. (Anderson, 2004) Implementation of Alternative As stated above, the most ethical course of action would be to modify the Beacon feature to satisfy both the needs of its users and the advertisers that use the feature. This alternative would include creating a method for users to either choose to participate in the program and also provide its users with all pertinent information relating to the Beacon feature so that users could make an informed decision regarding their participation with the program.

This second option proved to be the best course of action because despite the fact that the different goals stakeholders have, they all had one common one: to keep Facebook running. Facebook would have to produce income to maintain its functionality as a free social media site to its users. Modifying the Beacon feature would enable Facebook to use the Beacon feature, but also enable its users to make an educated decision to permit the feature to monitor their internet activity. This meets the solution for the ethical dilemma and satisfies all sides.

In order for Facebook to implement these changes, they would need to quickly act to enlighten all potential stakeholders of the changes to the Beacon feature. Beacon would need to be completely reshaped to enable Facebook users to have an obvious process to choose to participate, or not, in the service. They also would need to create incentives so that users would want to opt into the Beacon feature. The Facebook Company would need to reach out to all advertisers to devise a way to reach the users of Facebook without the initial problem of violating their privacy.

Reflection The immediate outcome that comes to mind would be the satisfaction of the users who felt their rights to privacy were violated. This would have a positive impact on the Facebook Company’s image. It would show that Facebook is a company that cares about its users and not just one that cares about its bottom line. The option of modifying the Beacon feature would be one that the Facebook Company could be proud of. This choice, following the Utilitarian Approach, maximizes the happiness of the most people involved overall.

One potential outcome that is unintended would be the future demands that could come. Because Facebook saw the potential consequences of unhappy users, they quickly devised a way to satisfy the needs of these users. Consequently, the next time they implement a feature that makes its users unhappy, they may have to deal with the demands that might be enforced later. Overall, the Beacon feature was more than a feature that made users unhappy; it actually violated one of their fundamental rights: their right to privacy.

Facebook’s overall reasons for changing the feature spanned farther than just making users happy, it dealt with compliance with the law, so I feel that the positive outcomes from the change will outweigh any potential negative outcomes in the future. References Facebook. In (2012). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Facebook Facebook beacon. In (2012). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Facebook_Beacon Martin, K. (n. d. ). Facebook (a): Beacon and privacy. Corporate Ethics, Retrieved from http://www. corporate-ethics. org/publications/case-studies/ McCarthy, C. (2007).

Facebook announces modifications to beacon advertising program. CNET, Retrieved from http://news. cnet. com/8301-13577_3-9826724-36. html Carlson, N. (2010). The full story of how facebook was founded. Business Insider, Retrieved from http://www. businessinsider. com/how-facebook-was-founded-2010-3 Phillips, S. (2007, July 24). A brief history of facebook. The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www. guardian. co. uk/technology/2007/jul/25/media. newmedia Anderson, K. (2004). Probe ministries. Retrieved from http://www. probe. org/site/c. fdKEIMNsEoG/b. 4224805/k. B792/Utilitarianism_The_Greatest_Good_for_the_Greatest_Number. htm

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