Facebook earns praise for privacy changes

Privacy watchdogs and industry experts say the company hit the mark by simplifying privacy controls

Facebook's decision to offer end-users simpler options to configure privacy controls on the social-networking site has received an initial thumbs-up from industry experts and privacy watchdogs.

This first wave of positive reaction suggests Facebook may be on the right track to silence weeks of criticism about how recent changes made it unreasonably complicated for people to manage access to what they post on the site.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company understood and agreed with the concerns and moved quickly to address them because it's a losing proposition for Facebook and its users if privacy settings are perceived as convoluted.

"The point of the controls is that you have control over your information, but if it gets to a point where it's so hard to use all the controls because there are so many of them, then you don't actually feel like you have control over your information. That means you don't actually feel comfortable sharing as much information as maybe you otherwise would have," he said at a press conference on Wednesday.

While keeping the existing, granular system of privacy settings, Facebook is now adding a simple, single dashboard where users can set broad-reaching privacy settings over their Facebook content to one of three options: "everyone," which means everyone on and off Facebook; "friends of friends"; and "friends only."

The parameters set on this dashboard will retroactively be applied to all content already posted, as well as to content posted in the future.

Facebook is also rolling back requirements that some content be public, like promotional Pages users subscribe to, or "like," in Facebook parlance. These pages and their mandatory public connection to users became controversial when Facebook required that users "like" some items on their profiles, such as employer, city, university and interests. Otherwise, such information would no longer be included in users' profiles.

Facebook is also providing a virtual "off switch" that lets users block all access to their information from third-party applications and Web sites.

Zuckerberg also pledged that Facebook will leave this privacy control structure in place for the long term.

Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Facebook has taken important first steps to improve its privacy practices.

"These new controls are more comprehensible, and will have fewer loopholes through which your private information can escape," said Eckersley in an e-mail interview.

"Over the years, Facebook has had a history of gradually degrading privacy standards. It's time to see if the company can now make a sustained commitment to doing things better," he said.

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, is also encouraged by the changes.

"This is a very significant improvement in their approach to privacy, and it helps consumers. The controls are much improved," she said. "It's promising and a very good step forward."

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, also found the move promising.

"I'm not sure yet whether concerns about collecting and sharing information for behavioral advertising and other uses have been completely addressed, so I would say: Good start, let's see what happens and what more needs to be done," she said via e-mail.

"They definitely simplified most of the settings. The new interface seems much more straightforward," said industry analyst Greg Sterling, from Sterling Market Intelligence. "Facebook deserves credit for responding to the feedback."

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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