Zuckerberg Promises Simpler Privacy Settings Soon

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Responding to mounting criticism over its privacy policies, Facebook has once again retooled the settings that govern how information is shared on the site.

The changes, announced on Wednesday, aim to provide users with a new and simplified set of controls, including a single button to click that can restrict access to all the information on users' profiles to their friends.

Facebook's latest privacy controversy -- though by no means its first -- followed the company's f8 conference, when it announced a host of changes to the site that collectively seemed aimed at making more of users' profile information publicly available and sharing it with third-party sites around the Web.

"It's been a pretty interesting few weeks for us just listening to all the feedback," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said today on a conference call with reporters. "A lot of people right now are upset with us over these changes, and I take that really seriously."

Zuckerberg said that despite the sharp criticism directed at Facebook from a variety of government officials, consumer advocacy groups and its own users, including several calls for boycotts, the world's largest social network has seen no discernable drop-off in activity.

But he admitted that in their efforts to develop increasingly granular controls, Facebook's engineers created an overly complex privacy maze that bewildered many users and left critics with the impression that the company was interested only in prying more information away from its users.

"A lot of what we were trying to do we just didn't communicate as well as we could have," Zuckerberg said. "The main thing we've taken away from this is that we really need to simplify the controls."

In response, teams of developers, engineers and others have been huddled in a conference room in Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters for the past few weeks, grinding out long hours in developing a new set of privacy controls.

With the changes rolling out over the next week or two, users will be able to click twice to set the boundary for how far all of their information will travel, with the only options being friends, friends of friends or everyone.

However, Facebook will also still offer the more granular controls for users who want the ability to set sharing parameters for each type of content on their profiles. The company also said it has redesigned that control so that it will apply by default to all future products the company develops, including the location-based features currently under development.

"A lot of people like the granular controls and we're not taking those away," Zuckerberg said.

Additionally, Facebook is cutting back on the amount of basic profile information that is automatically publicly available with no option to conceal it. Under the "Basic Directory Information" page of Facebook's privacy controls, users will be able to limit access to their lists of friends and the pages they have connected with.

Finally, Facebook is offering tighter controls for how users' information is shared across the applications on its developer platform and with third-party sites through its instant personalization program.

Over the coming weeks, Facebook plans to deploy a new set of controls, which had already been in the works before the latest controversy, that will require applications to secure permission for collecting individual pieces of information about a user.

"The net effect of that is just that applications are going to have dramatically restricted access to your information," Zuckerberg said. He also described a new kill-switch feature that will allow users to shut down access to all apps and games on their profile. "You turn this off and all applications are off for you."

Facebook is also giving users the option to turn off the instant personalization feature that shares publicly available information with the company's partner sites.

Zuckerberg publicly acknowledged that Facebook had made mistakes on the privacy front earlier this week in a column published in the Washington Post and hinted that changes would be coming in short order.

The escalating controversy has attracted the scrutiny of lawmakers, domestic and foreign regulators and a coalition of consumer groups, which has called on the Federal Trade Commission to open a formal investigation into the company's privacy practices.

Collectively, those concerns and the associated media coverage have helped create a perception that Facebook's executives, particularly its 26-year-old CEO, are indifferent to users' privacy and are interested only in parlaying personal information into advertising revenue. Zuckerberg vigorously disputed that notion, reminding reporters that Facebook doesn't share profile information directly with advertisers, but rather places ads on behalf of its partners who are trying to reach a certain audience segment.

And the sweeping statements Zuckerberg is prone to making regarding people's shifting expectations for sharing information and connecting on the Web? He'll argue that they are not incompatible with sturdy privacy controls.

"We really do believe in privacy and we believe in giving people control," Zuckerberg said. "What I am saying is that there's a balance and more and more people want to share information, and as long as they have good controls over that, I think that's where the world is going."

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.