Experts positive on Facebook's new privacy controls

The upcoming changes are long overdue, they say

Privacy advocates and security experts have given Facebook a preliminary thumbs-up on the upcoming changes designed to improve privacy controls on its site.

The changes, which will be rolled out over the coming weeks, are steps in the right direction toward making it easier for users to understand who will be able to view the status updates, photos, videos and other content they post on the site, the experts said. They also welcomed the increased controls that users will have over content they're tagged in.

However, they cautioned that since the changes aren't yet available, it remains to be seen whether they will be a hit or disappointment with most users.

"It seems to reflect some of what people have been asking for. The issues of privacy and of control over your data are a growing concern and consumers are paying more attention to them," said Marian Merritt, Internet safety advocate with Symantec's Norton unit.

"However, the changes haven't been rolled out yet, so I don't know how hard they will be to configure. I'm pleased, but until I can start using them it's all conjecture," she said.

Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure, sounded a similar note, saying the plans seem promising, but that changes to Facebook sometimes complicate matters instead of simplifying them.

Then there is the issue of users' aversion to change, and the inevitable learning curve that comes whenever user interfaces and functionalities are adjusted, Sullivan said.

But, as described, the privacy controls being introduced should be "a win for all Facebook users," he said.

The changes, which Facebook detailed in a blog post Tuesday and in its Help Center, include placing "inline" privacy controls next to every piece of information and post on users' profiles.

By moving the settings from a separate page right next to the items people are sharing, Facebook hopes people will use them more often.

Facebook will also allow users to alter privacy settings after content has been posted. And people will be able to review and reject photos and other posts they have been tagged in, whereas currently they appear instantly on their profile wall.

While generally positive about the changes, Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos, said Facebook could go much further in protecting privacy by adopting a sweeping opt-in principle across its site.

To become "truly opt-in," Facebook should lock every setting to its most private and leave it up to each user whether they want to share their information more broadly, Cluley wrote in a blog post.

Some have speculated that a key motivation for the changes is the recent launch of Google+. Google hoped its Circles privacy and sharing mechanism would be an attractive alternative to Facebook's controls, which have been criticized as too complex, causing people to expose content to a larger-than-intended audience.

"With several of these features, it's clear that Facebook is playing catch-up to Google+. Google showed that it was possible to build much better user interfaces, giving social network users more privacy with respect to some of their friends, family and co-workers, while sharing with others," said Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), via e-mail.

For now, Google+ is still in a limited beta trial and available only by invitation, so its estimated 25 million members are just a small fraction of the more than 750 million on Facebook. Ultimately, whether Facebook's announcement is a direct response to Google+ doesn't much matter, Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson wrote in a blog post.

"What counts is that you will have more direct control of who sees a post at the time you post it," Simpson wrote.

Particularly welcome is the increased control over photo tags, which Eckersley said is "long overdue." Posting private photos of other people without their permission can create problems for them at work and at home. "The new Facebook tagging [interface] is an improvement on the previous one, which really reflected the company's ideology of oversharing," Eckersley said.

Merritt sees this ability to review posts before they are tagged as being particularly useful for preventing cyberbullying among minors.

While it's good to see Facebook improving its privacy controls and policies, regulators and legislators need to become more active on the issue, according to Simpson.

People need to be protected by "meaningful privacy legislation" that gives them the right to control the use of their online information and remove their data if they want to, Simpson wrote.

All eyes will now be on Facebook's 750 million users to see how they react to the changes. "We look forward to seeing how these controls work in operation, to see if users understand them and if it reduces the amount of unintentional oversharing on Facebook," said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl in a statement.

In the meantime, the changes are seen as encouraging.

"For some time now, consumer and privacy groups have been calling for better, easier-to-use tools for Facebook users to control their personal information. These are definitely steps in the right direction," Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, said via e-mail.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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