As Facebook privacy settings change, company's execs defend the changes
You can tell that last week's changes at Facebook have been neither as understood nor as popular as planned from the length of the Q&A posted on the social network's blog Monday.
The funny thing is, Facebook's most ambitious new feature--the "instant personalization" that allows partner sites Docs.com, Pandora and Yelp to provide data about your Facebook friends automatically--seems to be the least of the problems.
Instead, people seem more alarmed or annoyed by the profusion of "Like" buttons on other sites, placed there by site owners to let Facebook users recommend items to their friends and see what their friends have recommended. More than 50,000 sites, this one included, now use this "Social Plugin" feature--see a site called Like Button to get a sense of its reach.
(Same disclaimers as ever: Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors; Facebook's former chief privacy officer Chris Kelly--who, as a political candidate, just posted a statement questioning the site's recent changes--is a friend from college; many Post staffers, myself included, use Facebook public pages to market their work.)
But adjusting who sees what you've Liked has been made more difficult than necessary by Facebook's ever-shifting privacy interface. The instructions I gave in last Sunday's Help File are already obsolete, thanks to a redesign earlier this week. Worse yet, Facebook also apparently reset my privacy settings: After I'd set my "Likes and Interests" to be visible to "only friends," I found that the corresponding categories in the new interface ("Activities," "Interests" and "Things I Like") had all been made visible to "Everyone."
Facebook spokesman Simon Axten e-mailed that the site had taken this new default setting from the way public pages already work--becoming a fan of one was considered a public act automatically--and said the site's new privacy system provided more control than before.
Then there's the new "Community Pages" Facebook users have been asked to link to in their profile, in place of whatever nouns they had added before. For example, if you've listed the District as your residence, Facebook would ask you to replace that text with a link to its page for Washington, D.C.
But when these changes were presented to me, I couldn't click through those links to see just what I'd be pointing readers to. Furthermore, searching for many of these pages often seems to yield only normal pages and profiles. From what I've seen, most Community Pages feature little more than text copied from Wikipedia, but I've spent way too much time on the Web to start linking to pages without reading them first.
All of these recent changes come in the context of prior erosions of privacy, chronicled Wednesday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kurt Opsahl in a timeline.
To explain and defend these changes, Facebook set up a conference call on Wednesday for reporters with chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and public-policy vice president Elliot Schrage.
Sandberg led off by talking in sweeping terms about Facebook's ambitions to lead "an evolution from the information Web to the social Web," in which the company has "made it safe" for people to "have their real identity online."
(A historical note: People who want to keep a consistent identity across multiple sites have always been able to do so by employing the same username.)
I asked why the site couldn't keep its privacy interface and settings consistent. Sandberg replied, "What is available and technically possible for us to do this month is different from last month. ... With that comes a change in the settings."
I think Facebook is making the same mistake as a lot of other fast-moving tech companies: assuming that its users have the same zest for change as its employees. Think of how Google had to backpedal when its Buzz social-networking service didn't get the reception it expected.
Later on in the call, Schrage concisely summarized a contradiction the site must deal with every day: "Facebook is all about sharing information. At some level, sharing information is antithetical to secrecy." The site bridges that gap, he said, by offering control over how you share things.
Fine. But it's not enough to let users recover their privacy by tinkering with privacy settings that change every month. Instead, let me suggest two simple and small-c conservative principles for the site to adopt: Users should never see their privacy reduced unless they've chosen to lower it themselves, and the simplest and easiest action should always be the one that maintains the current level of privacy.
April 30, 2010; 6:30 PM ET
Categories: Privacy , Social media
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