Facebook Privacy Fracas Just Won't Die


It wouldn't be a major announcement from Facebook if it weren't met by howls of protest.

The latest follows yesterday's revamp of the company's privacy features, a process that will require all Facebook users to update the settings that determine how widely accessible the information they post to their profiles will be.

Facebook billed the changes as a consumer-friendly overhaul that would give users simpler and more granular controls over their information, but some digital rights and privacy advocates rushed to criticize the move.

Specifically, they worry that as users are prompted to update their controls, Facebook set the default setting for status updates, photos, and other posts to "everyone," meaning that that information would be open to the entire Web, not just the Facebook community.

"Facebook's new changes are obviously intended to get people to open up even more of their Facebook data to the public," Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), wrote of the new features. "The privacy 'transition tool' that guides users through the configuration will 'recommend' -- preselect by default -- the setting to share the content they post to Facebook, such as status messages and wall posts, with everyone on the Internet."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center expressed a similar concern, noting that the updates "may result in greater disclosure than users intend."

Facebook has defended its recommended settings by pointing to a new feature that gives users the option to share each update with just their friends, friends of friends, or everyone as it is posted. Additionally, a custom option allows users to share content with specific people or groups.

Tim Sparapani, Facebook's director of public policy, also took issue with the perception that the company is trying to trick users into sharing more information than they're comfortable with.

"It's being misreported as a default. These are really recommendations," said Sparapani. "Those recommendations are based on the experiences we've had based on how the typical user is using the site so far."

Facebook has also drawn criticism for removing the option to limit the visibility of some basic personal information, such as a person's gender or city.

But Bankston was not altogether critical of Facebook's efforts. He praised the "per-post" sharing controls and also gave the company high marks for simplifying its privacy settings page.

"Most important, however, is the simple fact that as part of this transition, Facebook is forcing all of its users to actually pay attention to the specifics of their privacy settings," he said.

Facebook officials yesterday said they estimated that between 15 percent and 20 percent of users had taken the time to adjust their privacy settings. With the new change, the company is requiring all of its more than 350 million users to at least glance at their privacy controls.

So far, Sparapani said that the process has seen a far greater portion of Facebook users take action to control their privacy settings.

"We're now at the position where after 24 hours 50 percent of all the people who have gone through the project are customizing their settings," he said.

But the concern remains in the "defaults" -- the term Sparapani disputes -- that the remaining 50 percent of Facebook users have been accepting. The privacy debate, which has reemerged as a significant policy issue for regulators and lawmakers in Washington, has long been dogged by questions of consumer awareness. How much do consumers know about what's happening with their information online? How much do they care? Perhaps most tricky to pin down is what constitutes meaningful consent. Most people concede that Internet users as a rule don't read privacy policies, and are prone to click an "I accept" box to access an application without reading the terms of the usage agreement.

The same tendencies, advocates worry, could be at work with Facebook's new controls, as users might be inclined to accept the recommended settings, only to learn later that they had shared more information than they intended.

"We're going in with a new assumption, that individuals are smart, and that given tools to understand what's going on, they're going to take the appropriate action," Sparapani said. "I think people are panicking unnecessarily."

He quickly added, "But we'll continue to listen to our users. We always will."

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com. Based in Washington, D.C., Kenneth's coverage areas range from government regulation to e-commerce and online media.