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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.

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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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 30, 2010; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Privacy , Social media  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Microsoft endorses a Flash video replacement
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Comments

Yes, I agree especially with the last and the third to last paragraph. LinkedIn has stayed fairly simple. Twitter too. So, I use those more and Facebook not so much. I tell people on Facebook if they really need to get a hold of me fast to use my e-mail contact info as it may be a few days between my logging in.

Posted by: HoosierFavoriteCommenter | April 30, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

I find that logging in and out matters. If I just close Facebook without actually logging out, then other sites act as though I'm still logged in. Since I share this PC with other people in my family, all sorts of silliness occurs. (I "liked" what?)

It's an extra level of effort to log in and log out of Facebook (and washingtonpost.com and Yelp etc.) but it appears to be necessary. It was a big step a few years ago when my computing became connected ALL the time and now it seems like I am going back to something like a "dial up" experience. You can always reach me on my landline, of course!

Posted by: wp04272010 | April 30, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

There has been a lot of controversy over Facebook's new "social plugins," but a newer problem has come up. If users adopt the most recent changes to Facebook, they lose the ability to type in their interests, education, and work information. In the past, people input this information themselves, and it showed up only on their own profiles--for example, if someone liked the Beatles, he could write that on his profile. He could change his settings to allow friends and other users to see this information.

The new changes eliminate users' ability to type in their information. Instead of typing in "Beatles," users are expected to link to a public Beatles page. The users' photos then show up on the public page. There is no longer a way to keep information about work, education, or interests private on Facebook.

Posted by: cait1 | April 30, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

I am really getting tired of having to check my privacy settings all the time to be sure they haven't been reset. Really, really tired of it. Particularly because I have to click through to something like a dozen pages to be sure ALL of my privacy settings are what I want them to be.

I also hate hate HATE it because I also have to do it for my mom, who is not the most tech-savvy person around and is not able to figure out the settings herself.

At some point, I'm pretty sure I'll get fed up with the whole thing and quit Facebook altogether, though I also have no faith that "deleting" my account means anything in terms of privacy.

Posted by: terayon6061 | April 30, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

Suggestions don't work for the kinds of people who run Facebook; they only understand raw power, i.e. legislation. Of course we'll hear the usual whining about government interference stifling business, but the alternative is waiting until a serious breach of identity occurs.

Posted by: scsmits | May 1, 2010 1:36 AM | Report abuse

Well, I've just voted my choice. I'm canceling my facebook account.

Posted by: estorey | May 1, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

If you use social media and expect people like Facebook to do anything other than try to make as much money as possible off of you, and damn your privacy, then you are a rank and absolute IDIOT

Posted by: dan1138 | May 1, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

I'm on Facebook, but I rarely use it for anything with any significance and will likely close out my account. Emails work just fine, and they're private between myself and the intended recipient(s). People seem to have forgotten how to do "social networking" in person. Sad.

Posted by: Catch1 | May 1, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I'm not on FaceBook, but if those "Like" buttons work like I think they do then
I should probably put a "Like" button on each element of http://purl.org/pii/terms/
(except pii:misc, of course).

That way, people who "Like" their privacy can tell FaceBook, and all their friends what sort of things they don't want FaceBook to know.

Posted by: gannon_dick | May 1, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

So long, and thanks for all the updates.

Why am I deleting my Facebook account?

The simple reason is, for me, Facebook is a highly evolved form of email for friends and family. If I get an account on Gmail, I understand that I'm making a deal, where I am giving them a lot of information about me and they are going to serve up targeted ads. At some level I trust them not to do anything really evil, such as sell my contacts to 3rd party marketers. In essence, that's what Facebook is doing when I go to their marketing partners' websites, and they share all my Facebook friends so I can see what music they're listening to on Pandora.

I guess I'm getting a little cranky in my old age, because I have formed a strong opinion that Facebook is evil. They are trying to move to a Web where everything I put on Facebook is public. Or at least public by default, unless I navigate some highly complicated and constantly-changing privacy settings, and even then more and more of my info is going to be required to be public, as much as they think they can get away with.

Which is really just an evil way of saying everything you do on Facebook is public, everything is Facebook's to sell. When you're selling my friends, that's really more than I can stand.

It's unfortunate, because Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool for connecting people and staying in touch, and there are many people I would not be in as frequent touch with or even at all without Facebook. That makes it hard to leave. And they're using that stickiness to drag the world in a really unfortunate direction where you can't control your information. As Facebook continues to erode privacy, Google and Microsoft and everyone else can do the same, and they are almost forced to, or their own marketing platforms are not as powerful.

Posted by: curmudgeonlytroll | May 1, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

@ estorey - Same here!

Posted by: djm-01 | May 1, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

You can "deactivate" your account, but you CANNOT cancel it. I guess Facebook expects the apostates to rejoin the fold once they see The Light, The Truth and the Errors of Their Ways again.
I talked to L. Ron Hubbard this morning (he is re-incarnated as a very influential Facebook board member) and he explained to me how we were all going to turn into Tom Cruise clones!
If you have to ask whether I am serious or not, you should not have read this comment! BTW, I am deactivated and I love this word in this context...

Posted by: pierre13152 | May 3, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Wow, I never thought Facebook seemed like a good idea in the first place. So, I never joined or gotten involved with that mess. The same goes for Twitter or LinkedIn; I don't need the "I'm taking a dump" type-tweet or event. I just never really saw the need for being constantly connected to share mundane events. Most of my friends can’t type, so why don’t you just call me? Or sit down and type on a bigger keyboard? Type when you have the time, not when you are driving.

Posted by: ummhuh1 | May 3, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Facebook's problem is that what's simple and right isn't profitable. They could default every new privacy-related changes to the most private setting; offer the user a chance to share more upon login. This would be pretty trivial to implement. However, it won't make them money. For all the negative publicity about Buzz, more people know about it than know about google wave.

Posted by: tundey | May 3, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

I find the "community pages" to be one of the most irritating features in the new changes and probably least understood. When you post something in your profile, if there are any community pages for words in your post (for instance, sleep) then your post ends up on the community page. If you have your privacy settings set so that only friends can see, then your post goes in one section that hopefully only friends see (Related Posts by Friends). If you have more open privacy settings then it goes under the section everyone sees, Related Global Posts. I checked the community page Sleeping and I think there are a lot of posts that have nothing to really do with sleeping other than saying a person plans on it (or didn't get enough, etc.) and there are posts that I think people really didn't think/want the whole world to see. I suspect a lot of people who have not updated their privacy settings down from Everyone, only thought it would go on the NewsFeed and didn't think that many people would see their post; they are in for a big surprise: 400 million people potentially could see it.

Posted by: brighteyes2 | May 6, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

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