Facebook changes privacy controls -- again

CEO promises easier settings soon

In an effort to squelch a rising tide of complaints, Facebook today announced new, simplified privacy controls. The move came after several weeks of users complaining about recent changes that made the controls confusing to many users, and required them to find several different controls if they wanted to restrict access to their information.

The earlier changes also turned what had been free text fields for users to list music, movies and TV shows they liked into automatic links to pages for those titles, forcing users to connect to a "community" whether they wanted to or not. It also began sharing data on sites outside of Facebook, so that users who go, say to the Washington Post will see which articles other Facebook users "like". Like almost all such new features, this "Instant personalization" feature has a default setting that assumes you want to share; you have to find the setting and change it if you don't.

Shortly after the previous changes, the New York Times reported that to completely control your privacy on Facebook, you have to use more than 50 settings with more than 170 options. The Times published a handy chart to help the navigation.

The new controls are not quite in place yet but will be added over the next few weeks, according to the company.

In today's announcment, Facebook founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg wrote on the company's blog: "The number one thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information. We've always offered a lot of controls, but if you find them too hard to use then you won't feel like you have control. Unless you feel in control, then you won't be comfortable sharing and our service will be less useful for you. We agree we need to improve this."

To that end, he outlined three new features:

  • A simple control over who can see your content. "In a couple of clicks, you can set the content you've posted to be open to everyone, friends of your friends or just your friends," he wrote. The user's settings will stay in place when new features are added, he said, in an apparent effort to address criticism that Facebook has sometimes used the introduction of new features as an opportunity to return user privacy settings to more public default levels.
  • Reducing the information that must be visible to everyone. "Now we'll be giving you the ability to control who can see your friends and pages," he wrote. "These fields will no longer have to be public."
  • Simpler controls for third-party applications that many Facebook users use. "Many of you enjoy using applications or playing games, but for those of you who don't we've added an easy way to turn off Platform completely," Zuckerberg wrote. "This will make sure that none of your information is shared with applications or websites."

Federal agencies have begun to embrace Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools, after a lengthy period of reluctance.

The reaction to Facebook's latest privacy dust-up -- just the most recent of many as the service tries to walk the line between protecting privacy and monetizing user data -- has ranged from angry to apathetic. Some high-profile "digerati" have publicly and loudly quit Facebook, a reaction that blogger Danah Boyd thinks is dumb.

"Most of these individuals weren't that engaged in Facebook as users in the first place. I say this as someone who would lose very little (outside of research knowledge) from leaving. I am not a representative user," Boyd wrote. "If I were to leave Facebook, I will have pretty much no impact on the network. This is true for many of the people who I've watched depart. At best, they're content broadcasters. But people have other ways of consuming their broadcasting. So their departure is meaningless. We are not the people that Facebook is worried about losing."

Larry Dignan, writing in ZDNet, said Facebook is trying to disconnect privacy from new features, likely in hopes of forstalling future user backlashes when new features are announced.

“Facebook is not a solved problem, there’s so much more we have to do,” said Zuckerberg, as quoted in Dignan's article.

Dignan addressed one of the most persistent criticisms of Facebook's overall approach to policy: Many privacy settings are set by default to share your information widely. If you want to restrict it to your friends, or to your friends and their friends, you have to opt-out by changing the default -- and Zuckerberg's maddening, tone-deaf insistance that that's what people want.

"Now it remains to be seen if these privacy settings are really more simple," Dignan wrote. "There will also be questions about why you have to still opt out — Zuckerberg says people like to share so that’s the default. 'The kernel of what we do is that people want to stay connected. There’s a view of the world that all information should stay private. That’s not what the users have told us they want. We really do believe in privacy and giving people control,' said Zuckerberg."



About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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