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Everything's Finally Copacetic on Facebook, Right?

By Erika Morphy
Oct 7, 2010 1:42 PM PT

Facebook rolled out a package of new user tools Wednesday that stunned onlookers -- and not just because it had been widely expected that Facebook would make some kind of mobile phone announcement.

Everything's Finally Copacetic on Facebook, Right?

Rather, it was the fact that Facebook introduced new tools with no crisis or controversy brewing in the background.

No Arm Twisting Necessary

"In the past when Facebook has made improvements to privacy or user controls, it was usually in response to some outcry or monumental error they made," Justin Brookman, an analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, told TechNewsWorld. "But these just came out of the blue. They are three fantastic privacy tools, so kudos to them."

Briefly, Facebook introduced a revamped Groups feature that lets users send messages to select people such as co-workers or families, as well as new tools that provide users with an audit on how apps are using their personal data, plus a way to download all of an individual's data to a browser-viewable file.

The Groups service changes are perhaps the most appealing, as they let users form closed groups for, say, just family or just work colleagues. Groups also have dedicated email and group chat.

Net Win or Loss?

However, this new tool comes at a cost -- Facebook will gain even more insight into people's relationships. The question is, is that worth what Facebook is offering? Or in other words, are these new tools a net win or net loss for privacy?

Opinions are mixed, even among privacy advocates.

"I would say it is a strong win," Brookman maintained. "Yes, you are giving Facebook more granular information about yourself, but they have an awful lot of information about you anyway."

Facebook is giving users more control over their data than they ever had before, he said, and the ability to run audits on the information that apps or third-party app providers have gleaned about them is significant.

"That alone will go along way to creating awareness of privacy issues online," Brookman remarked.

That feature does indeed make Facebook's latest changes a net win, agreed Nichole Goodyear, cofounder and CEO of Brickfish. "For privacy it is huge, because consumers have more visibility into what is being shared."

The revamped Groups feature is also likely to inspire a change in user behavior, noted Goodyear.

"Before, people would have to tailor or censor what they posted, because they knew their colleagues or boss might see it," she told TechNewsWorld.

The new Groups will likely enhance users' privacy because social conversations can now be more discreet and directed, said Matt Watier, the interactive art director with Williams Whittle.

"No longer does a user have to ask the question, 'should I post this because I am friends with my boss?' but rather can post it with the group that consists of your friends that shared the experience, Watier pointed out. "As a demographic profiler for ad placement 'the groups' is a more subtle way to expand upon what already exists in all of our profiles under 'Likes and Interests.'"

Double-Edged Sword

Diehard privacy advocates, however, are quick to point out the new Groups' potential problems.

"Anytime you are giving someone more information about who your friends are, what your relationships are, you are effectively giving an ISP or a social network more tools to evaluate and understand your behavior," Jeffrey Johnson, an attorney with Pryor Cashman, told TechNewsWorld.

"Yes, there is the added benefit of being able to more readily communicate with smaller groups of closer friends and relatives, and to choose a smaller pool of people with whom you share particular information," he acknowledged. "So from the user's perspective, whether this is net loss or benefit will vary depending on how important their ability to selectively share information is."


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