FACEBOOK’S ABOUT-FACE:

The popular social networking website

Facebook

just backed down from a controversial new advertising program after a revolt by thousands of members. Facebook had launched Beacon, which was using “social advertising” technology to broadcast information about online purchases without many users’ consent. The idea was to convert private commerce into public endorsements: “Ben Bloom ate at the restaurant Junnoon,” read one ad, with a prominent head shot of Ben displayed next to the company logo. But what if Ben didn’t want his lunch date to be an ad? Beacon enrolled people automatically, offering users a choice to “opt out” of each ad on an individual basis.

Many people didn’t like that, so they protested, naturally, on Facebook.

MoveOn

started a group demanding that Beacon switch to “opt in”–a default to protect uninformed users–and allow people to reject the program completely in one click. A new group, Facebook: Stop Invading My Privacy!, quickly swelled to more than 50,000 members. It was a hub for activism, news and stories about Beacon snafus, including Christmas surprises spoiled by posted ads. Students from across the country signed up to lead the group as self-declared “privacy avengers,” and its message board drew more than 1,000 posts in less than two weeks. Then Facebook conceded to the first demand, scaling back Beacon so users must choose to participate. MoveOn declared victory, crediting “everyday Internet users.” The partial retreat was especially striking because last year, a much larger protest group of 700,000 users did not compel Facebook to abandon the “feed,” a new feature that blasts updates about people to their personal networks. This time, however, the activism was not limited to decentralized complaints. MoveOn added critical leadership and a practical reform agenda, while users spread the word about Facebook on Facebook.   ARI MELBER

LIFE IN THE GARDEN STATE:

On December 3 a New Jersey State Senate committee voted to rid the justice system of state-sanctioned murder, once and for all. With the Death Penalty Elimination bill on a fast track and Governor

Jon Corzine

vowing to sign it, New Jersey could become the first state to abolish the death penalty since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 by the Supreme Court.

The bill hit a roadblock (built of political cowardice) last spring, when Senate Democrats–facing elections–sidelined a vote on it to avoid looking “soft on crime.” Now the same lawmakers may pass the law as was originally recommended in January by a commission that had held months of public hearings on the issue. With executions stalled across the country pending a Supreme Court ruling on lethal injection, now is the time for other states to hold similar hearings to rethink their death penalty laws. This has already happened in New York, California and other states. In Ohio–whose last execution was gruesomely botched–a judge recently announced plans to scrutinize the way the state kills its prisoners.

Lawmakers in search of alternatives to the death penalty will likely take their cues from New Jersey, whose legislation exchanges death sentences for life without the possibility of parole. It’s a commonly suggested substitute–even among death penalty foes–but one riddled with many of the same flaws as the death penalty itself: racism, class bias and overzealous prosecutions that lead to wrongful convictions. If there truly is, as the New Jersey commission concluded, “increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency,” surely the same can be said for a punishment that condemns people–including juveniles and the innocent–to a living death that can only be described as cruel and unusual.    LILIANA SEGURA

RESCUER DOWN UNDER:

Almost two decades ago,

Peter Garrett

and his band,

Midnight Oil

, were at the top of their edgy, politically charged international fame. In May 1990 the militantly green Australian rockers commandeered a spot outside New York City’s Exxon Building, pitching a banner that read Midnight Oil Makes You Dance, Exxon Oil Makes Us Sick before launching into a blistering version of their anthem “Dreamworld,” which contained a snarling message for corporate polluters: “Your dreamworld is just about to end.”

Now Garrett–the law school graduate turned singer who once declared, “We can’t treat the world like a garbage dump, and there’s more to life than profit and loss”–is off the streets and into the suites as Australia’s environment minister. A Labour Party member of Parliament for three years, Garrett was appointed to the cabinet by new prime minister

Kevin Rudd

, who has pledged to radically alter his country’s approach to global warming. Garrett will be in the forefront of that push, although now he’s the one feeling the pressure from environmentalists. Australia’s Green Party, which received more than a million votes nationally and now holds five seats in the country’s closely divided Senate, is prodding Garrett to abandon the relative caution he has displayed since trading his T-shirt for a politician’s suit. The Greens are hoping Garrett hasn’t forgotten that he was right about there being more to life than profit and loss.   JOHN NICHOLS