New Facebook Privacy Tweaks Have a Googley Aftertaste

In a nod to users who have complained about Facebook’s privacy settings for years, the social network announced new, simplified settings Tuesday that allow users to exercise greater control over what information is shared across the network.

Going forward, users can choose a feature called “Profile Tag Review,” which would allow them to approve a photo or post in which they’re tagged before it hits their profile, or they could simply remove the tag.

The upgrades also make it easier to share tagged photos or posts with specific individuals or groups, much like the Circles feature in rival network Google+.

Those controls, and other privacy settings such as the option to see how a particular individual views your profile, will now appear in a drop-down menu next to the photos and posts for easier access to the security features.

Although users now have the option to refuse a tag, they may have to do so more often — Facebook also announced that users can now tag anyone, even non-friends, in photos or posts. Early critics worried that option could be used in unintended ways, such as by advertisers or spammers looking for a new way to recruit customers, but Facebook doesn’t think that’s a concern.

“Something to note is that whenever you’re tagged by a non-friend, it will always go into your Pending Posts section of your profile [regardless of whether you’ve turned on the Profile Tag Review or not]” Meredith Chin, product communications spokesperson at Facebook, told TechNewsWorld.

Facebook also expanded the location-based technology aspect of the site. Now, users will have the option to tag themselves from anywhere, not just a mobile device.

The changes will begin gradually rolling out on Thursday, and once it hits one’s profile, the user can be guided through a tour to get a better feel for the updates.

Privacy Report Card

Due to the number of complaints and public relations headaches Facebook’s privacy policies have caused it in the past, the company worked with technology privacy advocates to make sure the new settings would receive a warm welcome, and so far they seem to have made a positive impression.

“On the big picture we think these changes look very good. Facebook has been working to develop these for a while and made a real effort to make sure these are intuitive changes for users, that users understand how they work and don’t accidentally overshare,” Erica Newland, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology told TechNewsWorld.

One initial concern was the new ability to tag non-friends in photos. Facebook touted the feature as helpful when tagging a photo of a group of co-workers, for example, or acquaintances who may not necessarily be Facebook friends, though there was concern it would become just another way for spammers to work their way into the ecosystem. Since those photos or posts must be approved, though, the user is given a measure of control.

“I think there is some sense to allowing people to tag non-friends. It’s Facebook’s decision on how to optimize that experience for users, but it’s important they’re giving users the option to exercise control. That’s something users have asked for a while and it’s absolutely a step in the right direction,” said Newland.

It’s a direction many social networks are taking. Since the lines between what is appropriate to share online blur between generations, professions and lifestyles, networks are leaving it up to users to decide just how much of their info they want out there.

“We’re happy Facebook is creating a forced choice. That’s a very good model for privacy controls, rather than assuming you know what the user wants,” said Newland.

Pressure From Plus?

Facebook’s new controls are entering the scene around the same time as Google+, the search engine’s attempt at a competitor to challenge Mark Zuckerberg’s far-and-away leader in social networking.

After its debut in July, Google+ saw an unprecedented, almost immediate surge of users, and there was speculation it was because of the network’s more personalized, controlled sense of privacy and security. In Google+, contacts are divided more naturally into groups, or what the site calls “Circles.” Users choose from the onset who is a friend, family member, or co-worker, for instance, and with each post or photo must decide with which Circle they’ll share.

The concept is similar to Facebook’s changes, but the social network leader says it wasn’t modeled after anything in particular.

“We’ve been working on these changes for the last several months. We’re excited to be introducing a lot of changes that people have been requesting,” Chin told TechNewsWorld.

The bigger question is not if this was a competitive response, but if all networks treat user information with the concern it deserves as online sharing becomes an inevitable part of the social scene.

“I can’t speculate on how the two may have been connected, but what is really clear is that social networks see that privacy is a value for users. In order to attract and retain users, they have to offer controls. It’s kind of a maturing of the social networking ecosystem,” said Newland.

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