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Facebook launches simpler privacy settings

Facebook redid its privacy functions on Wednesday, promising simpler controls that won't change when the social network launches new features.

facebook_new_privacy_settings.png

In an hour-long press conference, founder Mark Zuckerberg said the Palo Alto, Calif., firm had gone too far in providing ever-more-flexible privacy settings. To fix that, he announced three major changes to how the 400-million-plus users of Facebook can control who sees the information they post there.

First, it's condensed the old tangle of intersecting privacy options into four simpler choices, labeled in large type as seen in the screen capture above: "Friends Only," "Friends of Friends," "Everyone" or "Recommended." More important, if you choose one of the first three options or make any other changes to the default "Recommended" setting (in which your status updates, photos, posts, relationship and family members are public), Facebook will honor that choice throughout all future product launches, Zuckerberg said.

That would end Facebook's most egregious privacy offense--its habit of changing settings on people and expecting them to opt out of the shifts afterwards.

Second, Facebook has cut down on the amount of profile information automatically disclosed to strangers. You can now limit the visibility of the interests you list on your profile and the Facebook public pages and Web pages off the site that you've endorsed with a click of a "Like" button to only friends or to yourself alone. This setting appears as a menu to the right of "See my interests and other Pages" on a new "Basic Directory Information" page--not the main privacy-settings page.

I'd still like to see Facebook stop turning every random interest listed on a profile--say, "swearing at computers when they don't work"--into a "Community" page. At least now you can stop other people from seeing your associations with those pages.

(Update, 5/27 9:13 a.m.: After a night to mull over this, I like the "Basic Directory Information" page less. It includes things that aren't "basic"--details like your Likes and interests aren't what you are, they are things you do, and so belong on the main sharing-settings page. It wouldn't hurt to have the word "Like" in a boldface heading to make it as obvious as possible how to control the visibility of your Likes. See also Danny Sullivan's extended critique of the revised privacy interface, posted Wednesday night.)

Third, a new "Applications, Games and Websites" privacy page shows all of the Facebook-connected applications you've enabled on the site and on other devices such as your smartphone, lets you turn off all or some of them and provides a simpler path to opting out of "Instant Personalization"--its controversial experiment with providing some of your data without your permission to partner sites Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft's Docs.com.

And all of these changes should be for the long term. Zuckerberg declared during a Q&A segment that "this is the end of the overhaul" of its privacy settings, saying that the new interface should work no matter how many more users it collects.

I saw all three new privacy features available in my Facebook account before the press conference had finished, but spokesman Andrew Noyes later wrote that the new settings will take "days" to roll out to all of the site's users. The company provides more information in a blog post by Zuckerberg and in a guide to the new settings.

(Bored of this disclaimer yet? Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors, and Post staffers and the newspaper as a whole use Facebook for marketing purposes.)

At some point during the conference, I wanted to hear Zuckerberg say "I'm sorry." But just as he avoided those words in an op-ed published in Monday's Post, he refrained from confessing any guilt today, though he did sound a tad defensive in answering one question by saying "We do believe in privacy."

On the other hand, I'm less interested in what Zuckerberg thinks than what Facebook does. Today's moves don't fulfill all of my requests and won't stop me from being guarded in what information I share on the site--remember, anything sufficiently interesting can be memorialized in a screenshot and circulated forever online. But after a series of self-inflicted wounds that have left Facebook's privacy policies a punch line for the Onion, these changes give the site a chance to start earning back the trust it's squandered.

Now it's up to the site to live up to its promises--especially about never again undoing any of our own changes to its settings--and for us to hold the company to those pledges. Don't go back to trusting its every suggestion; think about how people might misuse what you post on the site and, when in doubt, choose the less public option.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 26, 2010; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  Privacy , Social media  
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Comments

That is a very good explanation. I didn't know about the community-page thing.

I would also encourage folks to follow the Diaspora open-source social network project.

Yes, I'm bored with the disclaimer but you have to do it. God forbid Dan Gillmor catches you leaving it out. Put it at the bottom in italics, or something, so it is not obtrusive.

Posted by: Bob_Dobbs | May 26, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Facebook, it has been said, is a virtual bar where friends meet. Zuckerberg, the bartender who calls his clients "suckers", is very happy to keep pouring drinks whilst taping every move they make, and selling this information to marketers.

If a real brick-and-mortar bar did this without customer consent, they would be shut down immediately with howls of protests from formerly happy patrons. But because this is the internet, apparently privacy isn't expected.

The controls remain of low value when every single item, feature, or page must be manually set (in some cases repeatedly) to the user privacy setting he is comfortable using. Such shoddy controls are part of the reason MS Internet Explorer continues to shed users -- it's about time Facebook users woke up and realized that there are better alternatives to Facebook too.

Posted by: roule | May 26, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

I departed facebook last week, and haven't seen enough to entice me to return.

It's surprising that it took a bunch of Harvard grads so long to figure out what's wrong with what they've been doing...

Posted by: MountainDem | May 27, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

"This setting appears as a menu to the right of "See my interests and other Pages" on a new "Basic Directory Information" page--not the main privacy-settings page"

Can someone point me to this "Basic Directory Information" page? I can't find it. Thanks in advance.

Posted by: rosepetals64 | May 27, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

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