Facebook simplifies privacy settings, calls them too complex

Members will soon be able to make content on their profiles available for all to see

Facebook will simplify the way in which it offers privacy options to its users, as it gets ready to give its members for the first time the option to make the content they post on their profiles available to anyone on the Internet.

Right now, Facebook privacy controls are too scattered across multiple settings pages and they lack uniformity, creating confusion among members, Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly said Wednesday during a press conference.

This complexity prevents many members from taking full advantage of the very granular privacy controls that Facebook offers and that are one of the social-networking site's selling points.

"It's too complex at this point," Kelly said.

If people don't feel they fully understand how to establish access settings to their profile content, they will not post and share as much as they would otherwise, Kelly said.

Consequently, Facebook will consolidate into one page all of its privacy settings and make the options more uniform, focused on five access levels: Everyone, which will eventually mean sharing with anyone, on or off Facebook; Friends and Networks, which means sharing with all friends on your list and with anyone on the same work or school network; Friends of Friends, which includes anyone who is a friend of one of your friends; only Friends; and Custom, in which a user manually hand-picks the people to share with.

Facebook will continue to allow members to set different privacy settings for specific sections of their profile and also for individual pieces of content, like a photograph, status updates, a Web link, a video clip or a text note.

The option to share with "Everyone" currently refers to anyone on Facebook, but will soon broaden its scope to anyone on the Internet, including people who aren't on the social-networking site. Facebook hasn't yet decided to what extent search engines like Google will be able to index the content tagged for "everyone."

This "Everyone" option is widely seen as Facebook's attempt to counter the popularity of Twitter, the micro-blogging site and social network that has experienced meteoric growth in the past year and which many see as a credible threat to Facebook.

Posts on Twitter are by default public to anyone on the Internet, and the service has been embraced by consumers wanting to provide real-time status updates publicly about their lives and work, and by businesses as a way to widely promote their products and services.

Twitter fulfilled that underserved need that Facebook hasn't been able to, because until now Facebook hasn't made it possible for its members to share their profile content, with the exception of bare-bones information in public search engines.

Facebook has been taking steps to give members more options to share their profile content more widely in recent months, including the start last week of a test for a new version of its Publisher, the tool that members can use to post notes, status updates, links, photos, videos and other content on their profile "wall" and share them with their friends.

This new Publisher version, now in limited beta, lets members determine the privacy settings of each individual post they make, and includes the option for members to share whatever they post with "Everyone" on the Internet, on or off Facebook.

In March, Facebook started giving members the option to share all or some parts of their profile with everyone on Facebook; previously, people could only do that with hand-picked "friends" or members of the same geographical, school or employer networks.

Another change announced previously but discussed more in depth on Wednesday is Facebook's decision to do away with regional networks, in which people could opt to share their profile with anyone in their same geographic network.

This option has been traditionally confusing, which is why about half of Facebook's members have opted not to belong to a regional network, said Leah Pearlman, a Facebook product manager.

Some regional networks are too large, such as the case where people only have the option to sign up for the country they live in, and don't necessarily represent a group with a common bond for sharing, like schools or work networks do, she said.

"We're removing them entirely," Pearlman said.

These changes will be implemented in the coming days, a Facebook spokeswoman said via e-mail after the press conference.

During this process, Facebook will present members with what it calls "transition tools," in which it explains the changes and makes suggestions for how people might want to configure their settings.

Facebook officials on Wednesday acknowledged that the company will nudge members towards making more of their profiles open, as opposed to only visible to friends. Privacy settings that members have set will carry over as they are right now.

These changes don't affect how Facebook shares member information with advertisers, which will continue to only happen when users give Facebook permission to do so, officials said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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