Controlling the default

Good piece by Christopher Caldwell in the New York Times, meditating on the implications of Facebook’s Beacon fiasco.

Facebook designed Beacon so that members would be able to “opt out” by clicking in a pop-up window. But these windows were hard to see and disappeared very fast. If you weren’t quick on the draw, your purchases were broadcast to the world, or at least to your network. Since people, too, sometimes want to be free, privacy advocates urged that Beacon be made an “opt in” program, which members would have to explicitly consent to join. In early December, Facebook agreed to this approach.

The Beacon fiasco gives a good outline of what future conflicts over the Internet will look like. Whether a system is opt-in or opt-out has an enormous influence on how people use it. He who controls the “default option” — the way a program runs if you don’t modify it — writes the rules. Online, it can be tempting to dodge the need to get assent for things that used to require it. This temptation is particularly strong in matters of privacy. For instance, the “default option” of the pre-Internet age was that it was wrong to read others’ mail. But Google now skims the letters of its Gmail subscribers, in hopes of better targeting them with ads, and the N.S.A. looks for terrorists not only in the traditional manner — getting warrants for individual wiretaps — but also by mining large telecommunications databases.

So it is with Facebook’s Beacon. We used to live in a world where if someone secretly followed you from store to store, recording your purchases, it would be considered impolite and even weird. Today, such an option can be redefined as “default” behavior. The question is: Why would it be? The price in reputation for overturning this part of the social contract is bound to be prohibitively high…