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Do I need to revisit Facebook privacy settings *again*?

In Sunday's paper, I attempted to clarify advice I gave in the prior Sunday's paper. Now I'm afraid I might have to clarify it further, and for the same reasons as the first time around: Facebook's changing, confusing and sometimes outright cryptic privacy settings.

To recap, two Sundays ago I used my Help File Q&A to suggest ways to control who can see what things you recommended by clicking a Facebook "Like" button on other sites, this one included.


(Condensed disclaimers: Post Co. chairman/CEO Donald E. Graham on Facebook's board of directors, former Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly a friend from college, many Posties market selves on Facebook.)

But when the Palo Alto, Calif., social network followed up its new sharing features by redoing its privacy-settings interface, I had to return to the topic a week later. This second Help File item included the following text:

Now, if you want to ensure that only friends can see which items you've recommended with a click of a Facebook "Like" button at other sites (The Post's included), you're supposed to visit a "Friends, Tags and Connections" page in your privacy settings.

On that page, set "Activities," "Interests" and "Things I Like" to "Only Friends" to avoid broadcasting those details to strangers at Facebook or any other site.

But one reader wrote in to say that he was still seeing the old privacy interface, without that "Friends, Tags and Connections" page. Another reported that when she used Facebook's helpful "preview-my-profile" option to see how her profile would appear to strangers, the public pages she'd Liked on Facebook were still visible, while things recommended through Like buttons elsewhere were not.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kurt Opsahl noted other issues in an e-mail. Even if you keep your profile's "Connections" links to "Community Pages" about your home town/college/employer/etc. private, you can still show up by name on those pages. (Facebook once knew how to handle that issue: If you viewed a public page without logging into the site, you would only see the first names of most of its fans.) And a Facebook note says that if you use another site's "Like" button to endorse "a real world entity, such as a book, movie or athlete," that, too, becomes part of your profile's public information.

All this shows, in the most charitable reading, an appalling inattention to usability. Pay attention to this part, Facebook management: Interfaces should be clear, consistent and predictable. You can't use the same term, "Like," for functions with different levels of exposure and control. You can't suggest an option does one thing -- limit something's visibility to "Only Friends" -- when it does something else. You can't opt everybody into new sharing options and then take a week or so to deploy a new privacy interface.

If Facebook's executives are not clear about these principles, there are many excellent resources available. I would suggest they start by Liking computer scientist Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things," a wonderful treatise that will ensure they'll never look at doorknobs in the same way again.

Meanwhile: Although I hate contemplating a correction on a 152-word piece meant to clarify a 115-word item (the rough journalistic equivalent of accidentally plunking the pitcher after walking the number-eight hitter), it's ultimately up to you all. Does the text quoted above answer the original query -- controlling the visibility of Likes at non-Facebook sites -- correctly or not? I'll await your comments while I mope in the dugout.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 4, 2010; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Privacy , Social media , The business we have chosen  
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Here's a thought...Until Facebook's CEO starts giving a crap about his users' privacy, maybe people should just delete their accounts.

Posted by: zipdang95 | May 4, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"All this shows, in the most charitable reading, an appalling inattention to usability."

Heh. That's exactly why I haven't used facebook since the advent of widget apps about three years ago. It got to a point where it took more time to figure out how to use facebook each visit than it took to read through anything interesting. In the last three or so years, I've been actually ASKING friends how they are doing rather than trying to dig out relevant updates from the really bad interface.

Posted by: sql_yoda | May 4, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I got some spam from the Washington Post's "Capital Business" in my email account but it had a particular version of my spouse's name in the message. My Washington Post ID has no name attached to id, so they just plucked it from Facebook: my wife had logged into Facebook at some time and had not logged out. The computers don't know any better so they just assume that Washington Post ID and the Facebook account "must" be the same person.

By the way, don't just close the Facebook tab in your browser, log out at the end of each session. Otherwise, you are "still" logged into Facebook.

Posted by: wp04272010 | May 4, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

It pains me to say this, but we may need the government to step in and establish some real rules. Facebook's monopoly position means that the market won't be able to resolve these problems.

Posted by: slar | May 4, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Read more about Facebook's "Evil Interfaces" at the EFF's website:

Posted by: snaab4 | May 4, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

It's a moving target. By design. That's why FB defaults everyone into the most public option of all privacy-related changes. And why not? Sure some people will cry out but a vast majority won't care enough to change things. And FB will make even more money.

@star: I don't see how the govt can step. Under what guise? FB is private, free and not mandatory. I think they are free to design their interface as they see fit. When the customer gets pissed off enough, we'll leave and FB will go the way of Friendster or any other fad.

Posted by: tundey | May 4, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

@Tundey - The FTC regularly looks at misleading privacy controls on websites. Not saying if this meets the criteria, but certainly could be looked at and corrective rules imposed if warranted.

Posted by: ah___ | May 4, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

It's time to take a stand. To me, there is not nearly enough uproar over the fact that the new Profile Connections initiative essentially makes most of the sections of your profile completely public.

For the first time since I joined over 5 years ago, I'm actually convinced Facebook has crossed over from being an entertainment company that looks for opportunities to derive income to a company that is now willing to exploit our data in any way possible for profit. These two perspectives may sound the essentially the same, but from an ethical standpoint, they are very different to me. I have been waiting a couple days to see if they will come to their senses, but now I plan to inform my friends that I am leaving Facebook, and I will be deactivating on Friday if they do not change their tune.

Posted by: acjohnson55 | May 4, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I left facebook on Sunday. I told them until they apologized for opting me in by default, stopped making privacy instructions confusing, and announced a new policy to opt-out by default for any future changes in their privacy policy, I wouldn't be back. Given how long that's likely to take, I'm not sure I will ever be back.

I gave my facebook friends advanced notice (a week)and asked them to email me if they wanted to make sure they had my contact information.

Posted by: ajbouche | May 4, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

The whole Facebook privacy thing is so confusing and changing so much I am not sure if I read the advice two Sunday's ago. I may confuse it with the new Post socializing feature. I find the whole Facebook privacy issue frustrating and it just irritates me. It's not you. So, if there are clarifications to be made, it is just as well I didn't read it. Maybe I will look at any update.

I note, Rob, you asked for pointed comment on your column and have received none so far. I suspect many of your fans, like me, are tech fans and know a bit about a few areas, but throw up their hands at Facebook. It's easier to figure out the FCC's options for network neutrality.

From the comments and your column here, though, it seems the EFF is one resource to focus on.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | May 4, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

The following comment Posted by: zipdang95 | May 4, 2010 1:00 PM summed up precisely what I initially thought about the issue:

'Here's a thought...Until Facebook's CEO starts giving a crap about his users' privacy, maybe people should just delete their accounts.'

Sadly it just doesn't go quite far enough. Maybe its time people actually got themselves some 'real' friends and met them 'Face-to-Face' instead of via an Ethernet connection.

You have probably guessed that I don't have a Facebook account and you would be right. I have 'real' friends and a 'real' life with interactions in the 'real' world with 'real' conversations.

Getting the picture yet?

In time people will lose all the skills required to communicate with each other 'Face-to-Face' and then we will start to see some really serious issues with psychological disorders.
Good news for 'Big Pharmaceutics' who love nothing better than a ready made market for more of their pills. Don't worry though. They have already taken steps to have depression classified as a disease so you'll all be well catered for.

Alternatively the Facebook brigade (along with Twitter, MySpace, StumbleUpon, Ning, Reddit, Y!Buzz and a whole raft of other lesser apps) might like to read this:,2817,2363390,00.asp
and then get a life instead. Sad but true folks. You post your details on the internet, you take your chance.

Posted by: KevinColeman | May 4, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate being able to stay linked to old high school, college, or work buddies... and for free. But the non-monetary cost keeps rising. Why do I need to opt-out instead of opt-in? Why do I need to (re)learn all these security settings? Why do I need to (re)learn a new interface every few months? I've got enough hobbies. The more complex Facebook becomes, the less useful it is to me. I'm about ready to pull the plug (and my profile is largely devoid of meaningful info, as I haven't bothered to dig into the too-granular privacy settings).

Posted by: davezatz | May 4, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

I think that the term "user vicious" sums up the Facebook privacy settings....

Posted by: skf123 | May 5, 2010 1:27 AM | Report abuse

This just doesn't have to be so complicated. The default Facebook option should always be for maximum privacy: not sharing anything with anybody or connecting with anything. The user could then change his settings to suit himself. And the user's profile should clearly show in one place all the connections that his settings allow.

Posted by: suzi01 | May 5, 2010 5:39 AM | Report abuse

Do not put real information in facebook and it will not matter. Use fake data, as facebook obviously is unethical and amoral.


Posted by: patmatthews | May 5, 2010 5:59 AM | Report abuse

FB really annoys me! They use this tactic by making the privacy setting so difficult to change and manage. If you don't go through this steps, by default, your information will be shared unknowingly. All these sneaky arrangements aim to sell your personal information to advertiser. FB has no respect of your privacy. I am canceling my account and I call for all FB users to do the same.

Posted by: sayNo2MS | May 5, 2010 6:22 AM | Report abuse

I love being able to post my digital pictures for friends to see. Otherwise, FB is a pain the butt at so many levels it is not funny. The security issues that keep coming up are driving me to think about just closing my account.

Posted by: tojo45 | May 5, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

Is it just me or do others also think the nice people at Facebook are going to be getting a visit from the nice people at the Justice Department?

Posted by: m991 | May 5, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Quit using the stupid "Like" button. Otherwise, suffer the consequences. They didn't put these things out there for your benefit. They are profit generators.

Posted by: valuddite | May 5, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps someone has already posted this. If so, sorry. It turns out that deleting your fbk account is non-trivial. Find out how here:

Posted by: DickWexelblat | May 5, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Suggestion: AVOID FACEBOOK ... they have NO restraint when it comes to selling your personal information.

Posted by: kkrimmer | May 5, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

It appears that Facebook has made relationship status public too, and there is no way to make it private. It is displayed publicly and the privacy setting for relationship status has disappeared.

Rob, as for your suggestion regarding whether you have answered the query, I do not think it matters. Facebook will change their privacy settings next week ostensibly to give you "more control" but, in fact, giving you less control. And you will be rewriting this article again and again. It's a full employment program for tech journalists.

Posted by: David8979 | May 5, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I'm not going to disagree about these privacy complaints, but really I want to take issue with this:

"You have probably guessed that I don't have a Facebook account and you would be right. I have 'real' friends and a 'real' life with interactions in the 'real' world with 'real' conversations."

I also have 'real' friends. I have 25 years worth of 'real' friends who live all around the world, and I enjoy using FB as a way to keep in touch with them, given that interactions in the 'real' world are not always logistically practical.

I am mystified and extremely annoyed by the holier-than-thou attitude of the anti-FB crowd. If you don't like it, don't use it. That doesn't make you better or special, you're just making a different choice.

And if you don't even have a Facebook account, what are you doing reading and commenting on this story?

Posted by: mccxxiii | May 5, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

If you are a Facebook user, please join our Facebook group dedicated to getting Facebook to change their privacy policies!!/group.php?gid=116588455030918

Posted by: homeronline | May 5, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I have never signed up for Facebook, and most certainly never will. There are enough data miners on the net already - why deliberately offer yourself up to this unethical outfit?!

Posted by: solsticebelle | May 5, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

When I signed up for FB a year ago I started out with my real photo, and populated several of the personal information fields. But I have since deleted or altered everything that identifies me, other than my name.

I find value in keeping up with people located all over the world (which makes the face to face thing kind of tough there KevinColeman), but I am done with trying to work with FB's system. They can sell my data all they want now.. it's worthless.

Posted by: john65001 | May 5, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I am a very private person. I suspect I'm not alone. Though for family reasons I am a facebook subscriber, I have no desire in sharing anything with anyone. I think I've turned off/minimized all the sharing settings, but columns like this one sends me back to check again.

I think to encourage others who share my view to join, Facebook should offer a simple, one click option to reset all defaults to the least public setting, then let the user open the doors to society as desired. From my admittedly non-social perspective, I'm amazed that Facebook begins with the most public default settings.

Posted by: austinetc | May 5, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Don't be so naive. Except for secured sits like B to B , Banks, and other special secured sites, everything is public no matter what one does.

Posted by: peterroach | May 5, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

. . . Facebook users, of course, being such zealous guardians of personal privacy.

Posted by: dane1 | May 5, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

There is either a reason to read this posting… or a reason to dump Facebook?

Posted by: novacentura | May 6, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

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