Amid backlash, Facebook unveils simpler privacy controls

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declares today: 'We believe in privacy'

Amid mounting criticism that Facebook lacks adequate privacy controls, CEO Mark Zuckerberg Wednesday worked hard during the unveiling of new, simplified privacy controls to drive home the point that the company cares about protecting the personal information of its users.

Zuckerberg acknowledged during a press conference this afternoon that executives at the phenomenally successful social networking firm have made mistakes and have communicated badly with users about their privacy concerns.

"We believe in privacy. We believe in giving people control," said Zuckerberg. "But more and more, people want to share information. As long as they have good control over that, I think that's where the world is going."

He also said that Facebook heard the loud user complaints about the site's complicated and frustrating privacy controls, and that the tool tools were built to correct those issues.

"We've heard that people want a simple way to take control of their information," Zuckerberg said. "We looked at a video someone posted about how many steps it took to stop sharing their information [with third-party Web sites]. And we thought, 'Yeah, that's too much.'"

The criticism that the social networking firm is playing fast and loose with user information mounted significantly in recent weeks after Facebook unveiled a bevy of tools that allow user information to be shared with other Web sites.

One of the new settings rolled out today is a single control that limits who can see the content posted by a Facebook user.

"In a couple of clicks, you can set the content you've posted to be open to everyone, friends of your friends or just your friends," said Zuckerberg. "This control will also apply to settings in new products we launch going forward. So if you decide to share your content with friends only, then we will set future settings to friends only as well. This means you won't have to worry about new settings in the future."

Facebook also is limiting how much basic user information is available to everyone by enabling users to control who gets to see their lists of friends, along with their personal pages. That information was previously available to all facebook users.

Zuckerberg said Faceboiok is also making it easier for users to opt-out of instant participation on Facebook's partner sites. Zuckerberg said users can quickly and easily choose a setting that won't allow their information to be shared with third-party Web sites.

"This certainly shows that Facebook has put a lot of thought into privacy issues. Their new privacy controls show that they now 'get it' and understand user concerns," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "What I particularly like is how they're giving users a way to control what, if anything, is available to third-party Web sites and applications."

Olds noted that he's glad Facebook not only added simplified controls but kept the more complicated, granular controls for users who want to really dive into the experience.

"They made privacy controls easier to find and use, but still preserved the granular nature of the control mechanisms," he added. "This is important, because the whole idea and attraction to Facebook is how it allows users to share info with each other and make connections. If there were only broad blanket controls (like 'everyone sees everything' or 'no one sees anything'), then users would find it much more difficult to find and reach out to old friends or new ones. Being able to closely control who sees what is critical and Facebook has done a good job of making those controls useful and easy to use.

However, Facebook's moves today didn't totally win Olds over. He said he still wants to know how Facebook itself is using people's data, and whether it is being sold to advertisers.

Facebook's new privacy controls

Screen shot of Facebook's new privacy controls rolling out over the next few weeks, taken from the social networking site's privacy guide.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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