Facebook Backtracks on Privacy Controls and Public Information
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg held a press conference today announcing significant changes to the site’s privacy settings. The latest updates come after weeks of debate and criticism over Facebook’s handling of user information. Though it may take several days or weeks to roll out the new controls, an official privacy guide provides a summary of how they work. Full details are still rolling in, but certain aspects are already clear.
First, the new interface for making many changes appears to be much more streamlined. This should be a welcome change to those confused by the previous litany of options. The primary privacy page displays a table with columns for “Everyone,” “Friends of Friends,” and “Friends Only,” with rows for several categories of content. This table not only establishes settings for certain bits of profile information; it also lets users set defaults for new content shared.
Second, Facebook has removed the requirement that “connections,” such as your list of friends and the pages you “like,” always be publicly available information. A secondary page will provide access controls for certain groups of these connections, as well as who can friend you, send you messages, or see your profile in search results.
Third, users will have new options related to third-party applications that integrate with Facebook. The company had previously announced a granular permissions model for applications, and developers are in the process of transitioning to the new setup. Those permissions will now be reflected in the privacy settings, though how that will look is not yet clear. (Also, Facebook’s privacy guide assures users that applications can only request “information that’s needed for them to work,” but that’s up to developers.) Facebook is also re-instating an option to completely opt-out from the Facebook Platform. This setting had been available prior to changes last fall. However, it now appears that this opt-out will also be the only way to avoid public content being indexed by search engines.
Zuckerberg promised an “easy” way to opt-out of the controversial instant personalization program, which lets certain third-party websites automatically identify Facebook visitors, but the feature remains opt-out. Many of the other privacy settings are also still opt-out in that the site defaults appear to remain the same, presented as “Recommended” when a new user checks them.
I’ve been concerned about the tone of some Facebook responses to recent privacy concerns, and today’s presentation by Zuckerberg was no exception. He noted that the company had not seen any noticeable impact on site usage lately, and according to one report commented, “Perhaps the personal privacy preferences of liberal advocacy groups and DC politicians don’t match with those of the general public.” That may be true, though I think politicians or privacy advocates have a deeper understanding of recent changes than the general public. Still, this sort of remark comes across as at best somewhat irritated and at worst rather arrogant. It also probably won’t win over any liberal advocacy groups or DC politicians. (For the record, I don’t fall into either category.)
Other aspects of the announcements lead me to wonder how much Facebook truly understands the rising worries over the site’s handling of privacy issues. Zuckerberg emphasized the site’s focus on sharing, that users want to share, and his belief that people want to share more openly. The default privacy options clearly reflect this belief, positioning Facebook as a site generally intended for public sharing.
But I think Zuckerberg is confusing the desire to share easily or freely and the desire to share publicly. Several researchers have explored how people approach privacy, and people constantly use services such as Facebook to post content they would not want distributed to the entire Internet. We’ve become accustomed to the idea of being private in public, since our offline conversations in public settings are not recorded and indexed for anyone to search. What would be the harm to users if content was private by default, but could be opened to the public if the author wanted that? After all, this is how Facebook operated for the first few years of its existence – and it likely played a significant role in the site’s growth.
Of course, while an opt-in approach may help many users, Facebook wants users to share more openly. More public content provides more value for other services that might integrate with Facebook, extending the site’s reach and influence. That’s part of why I find it difficult to simply accept Zuckerberg’s notion that most people are moving towards public sharing on their own: regardless of what individuals think, Facebook itself certainly has an opinion on how much you should share.
And that’s the real question – how much you share, not whether you share. I’ve never been opposed to making it easier for users to share content. But I do have a problem when a site that was built on sharing with a limited audience reorganizes to make that same type of sharing more difficult than fully public sharing – an activity that carries far more potential dangers, both social and otherwise.
Facebook has built an unprecedented audience of users who give it significant trust. I’m glad to see the company making welcome changes which assist users who actively care about privacy controls. But I remain concerned that the company’s overall perspective still reflects questionable ideas, such as the notion most people are not concerned about privacy, and either fails to recognize the company’s role as a trend-setter or ingenuously downplays it. That’s not a personal attack on Zuckerberg, whom I’ve never met, or anyone else at Facebook. It’s simply my evaluation of the service’s direction based on recent features and public relations. And I think Facebook owes its users much better.