Facebook takes on privacy with new tools

Will users be quick to forgive and forget when it comes to privacy?

After taking a beating from users over privacy issues this year, Facebook got the message and gave users more control over their information.

On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced several new tools for the social networking site, including one designed to enable users to download any of their information from the site. Another new tool is a dashboard that allows users to monitor what applications they've used on Facebook and delete them more easily.

The new feature that's received the most attention is Facebook Groups, which lets users break up their friends into subgroups. For example, an employee who might not want his boss to see an update about a job interview can make that post available for only a few online friends to see.

Industry analysts note that behind these additions to the popular social site are its users' festering frustrations over Facebook's privacy, or lack of it.

"Facebook has shown that they've heard the message on privacy and user control," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "These new features, along with the privacy control revamp earlier this year, finally give users the ability to fine tune what people on their list can and can't see. With the Groups feature, Facebook is giving users a much more granular way to set access parameters and to separate their family and close friends from mere acquaintances."

Olds isn't alone in thinking that Facebook is working to quell some of its ongoing privacy issues.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an online commentary, noted that Facebook is moving closer to satisfying the organization's Bill of Privacy Rights for Social Networking.

"While EFF continues to have outstanding issues with Facebook, we greatly appreciate these important steps toward giving Facebook users more transparency and control when it comes to how the information they post to Facebook is shared, and more power to take their Facebook data with them if they ever choose to leave the service," wrote Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney for the foundation.

Opsahl added, however, that the foundation is looking for more privacy changes from Facebook, including more granular application controls, as well as changes to the Groups feature.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, noted that Facebook made some tactical privacy moves this week, but changing people's perceptions of the site's level of privacy may take a while.

"It may make new users and existing users more willing to invest time but, trust, or the lack of it, will trump this effort," Enderle said. "I think [Facebook] understands there is a problem. Like most engineering companies, they seem to think that it mostly has to do with technology and don't yet get that it has more to do with how people perceive them."

Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner, said privacy issues aren't likely to go away for any social networking site because everyone has different privacy expectations. While users have voiced their frustrations with Facebook's privacy controls, few of the site's more than 500 million users have left the site because of it.

"Overall, I think Facebook has weathered the storm of privacy concerns, as indicated by continued robust growth," Valdes said. "Privacy issues will never go away ... Facebook will continue to walk this tightrope, and, while it has teetered on occasion, it continues to regain its balance and move forward."

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.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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