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Facebook's New, New Privacy Settings: Same Old?

By Richard Adhikari
May 26, 2010 1:26 PM PT

Facebook on Wednesday announced an overhaul of its privacy controls intended to make them simpler. This follows a barrage of criticism and weeks of pressure from various organizations and groups regarding recent changes the social networking site made to its privacy settings.

Facebook's New, New Privacy Settings: Same Old?

"The number one thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. "Today we're starting to roll out some changes that will make all of these controls a lot simpler."

Facebook is focusing on three things: A single control for members' content; more powerful controls for their basic information; and an easy control to turn off all applications.

The New Rulebook

Facebook has built one simple control that lets users set who can see the content they post. This control will also apply to settings in new products Facebook launches going forward.

"If you decide to share your content with friends only, then we will set future settings to friends only as well," Zuckerberg said. Users won't have to apply their settings to new features Facebook unveils as their settings will be automatically applied to those.

Facebook has also reduced the amount of basic information that everyone must see, and it's removing the connections privacy model.

"Now we'll be giving you the ability to control who can see your friends and pages," Zuckerberg said. "These fields will no longer have to be public."

However, Zuckerberg recommended users make this basic information open to everyone so that users' friends can find them.

Third, Facebook has made it easy for users to turn off Platform completely so applications and websites cannot access any of their information. Facebook has also made it easy for users to turn off instant personalization so partner sites can't see things users have made visible to everyone, as they can now.

Forever and Ever Amen

Zuckerberg also indicated that Facebook would not be making any further changes to its privacy settings any time in the near future.

"I am pleased to say that, with these changes, the overhaul of Facebook's privacy model is complete," he said. "If you find these changes helpful, then we plan to keep this privacy framework for a long time. This means you won't need to worry about changes."

Facebook will be rolling out the changes over the next few weeks.

It's Getting Better All The Time

"Facebook made some positive changes today, but only because of political pressure from policymakers and privacy advocates on both sides of the Atlantic," Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center of Digital Democracy, told TechNewsWorld.

"Unfortunately, Facebook still refuses to give its users control over the data it collects for its targeted advertising products," Chester pointed out. "The defaults should also be initially set for non-sharing, with the minimization of data collection at the core of Facebook's approach to privacy."

"It's good for Facebook to recognize that it owes its users clear, understandable and usable privacy issues," Jeremy Mishkin, chair of the litigation department of legal firm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, told TechNewsWorld. "Sounds like they're taking my advice, to make it simpler and more understandable to users."

However, Mishkin was skeptical about the real extent of the privacy control changes.

"I guess Facebook will try to play up what good citizens they are by making controls simpler and hope that people don't realize they're being sold to advertisers," he said.

Never Say Never

Though Zuckerberg said Facebook intends to keep these new arrangements in place for "a long time," further pressure from the government may override that desire.

CDD and other privacy groups will examine these new settings and identify where further changes should be made, including on advertising data, Chester warned. He also wants Congress to look into privacy issues on social networking sites.

"We want Congress to hold hearings on social networking privacy with Mr. Zuckerberg as a star witness," Chester said. "Mr. Zuckerberg should be asked to explain how Facebook continues to develop new approaches to data collection and privacy that continually lower the bar until it has to conduct some form of hasty retreat."

CDD will also push the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Facebook. That probe will include acting on complaints filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and others, Chester said.

EPIC and 14 other groups have filed a complaint with the FTC alleging that Facebook has engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices in violation of consumer protection law.

"It's time for the FTC to announce guidelines to protect social networking privacy on Facebook and other sites," Chester said.

That echoes a call by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer in April for the FTC to provide guidelines for social networking sites on how private information submitted by members can be used and disseminated.

Facebook has also been criticized heavily by the Article 29 Working Party, a European data protection group. Meanwhile, prominent members of the tech community have called for alternatives to Facebook, the best known of which is perhaps the open Diaspora project.


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How do you feel about government regulation of the U.S. tech industry?
Big tech companies are abusing their monopoly power and must be reined in.
Stronger regulations to protect consumer data definitely are needed.
Regulations stifle innovation and should be kept to the barest minimum.
Over-regulation could give China and other nations an unfair advantage.
Outdated antitrust laws should be updated prior to serious regulatory efforts.
Tech companies should regulate themselves to avoid government intervention.
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