Facebook Retools Privacy Procedures

After months of privacy missteps and growing user unrest Facebook today pressed the reset button on its user privacy controls, announcing a set of simpler, top-level privacy controls that allow users to make informed and meaningful choices about how their personal information is shared and accessed by others, including applications.

The new controls let users set broad preferences that persist regardless of whether Facebook rolls out new features. A user can choose to “set it and forget it” or to use more granular tools to customize data sharing.

Facebook is returning to its roots, reintroducing controls that allow users to decide how they want to share their interests, education, and work information. Meanwhile, for the first time, users will have robust control over the privacy of “pages.” Facebook is also consolidating controls for interactions with third-party applications and Websites that use the Facebook platform, including those companies participating in the Instant Personalization pilot; a “nuclear option” will let users who do not want to engage with the platform ensure that what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.

While the new changes don’t resolve every privacy issue that CDT has identified–for example, we would like to see even clearer controls and communications around Instant Personalization, a logout button that is easy to find and easy to use, and more transparency about Facebook’s data collection and data retention policies – today's announcement is a welcome step as is the message from Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who said: "Over the past few weeks, the number one thing we've heard is that many users want a simpler way to control their information. Today we're starting to roll out changes that will make our controls simpler and easier to use."

It has been a long hard slog, but we are cautiously optimistic that this ship has been righted and is beginning to make the necessary course correction to put users and their privacy rights back at the helm.

In a similar move last week, MySpace, itself no stranger to privacy controversies, promised a simpler "more intuitive" procedure for its user privacy settings. Here too, we applaud the announcement, and we will be watching the roll out closely to gauge whether they got it right.

The real news here— to paraphrase Mark Twain,— is that reports of the death of privacy have been greatly exaggerated. Internet users may share more information online, but they care about their privacy. They want to be in charge of who they share that information with. And they don’t want to be misled by settings that give the appearance of control but little more. We know from the academic literature that this is true among Internet users of all ages.

But it has taken a full-throated revolt by Facebook’s users to put privacy back on the agenda of social networking giants. Now, the success of the new controls is in the hands of Facebook’s users, who need to check and adjust their privacy settings. Users must live out their message that user control is why they joined Facebook in the first place and why they’ve decided to stay.

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