After Beacon fiasco, new Facebook privacy controls score good reviews

Users gain ability to strictly monitor who can access content they store on the social network

After enduring withering criticism late last year for the lack of adequate privacy controls in its Beacon advertising system, Facebook Inc. today garnered positive reviews for new controls that let users more strictly monitor who can access the content they create on the site.

The privacy controls launched Wednesday let users limit access to information like photo albums or contact information to specific Facebook friends or friends lists, the company said. Facebook had rolled out the friends list feature in December as a way to help users communicate with groups of friends on the network.

Nick O'Neill, a blogger on All Facebook, noted that the new features provide users with more granular privacy by specifying various settings for each friend list. "This means that, in theory, all of my professional contacts will no longer be able to access my photos, and I can start posting those photos of my crazy times in college," he added.

"These new settings have theoretically transformed Facebook, making it possible to manage all of my contacts from one site," O'Neill wrote.

The All Facebook blogger also noted that the social networking firm today also launched a new option that allows users to opt-out of personalized SocialAds that integrate into photos a notice telling his or her friends about recent purchases made at various online retailers.

"If you hadn't noticed already, once in a while your friends' photos have been showing up on ads promoting applications and fan pages," O'Neill said. "Many were turned off by those ads complaining that making money off of our profiles is crossing the line. This is a significant step by Facebook, highlighting that Facebook has granted a higher priority to user privacy over monetization. This is an encouraging step and greatly welcomed, considering there wasn't much controversy over the ads as they existed."

Josh Catone, a blogger on ReadWriteWeb, said that when the friends list feature was rolled out in December, he called it a necessary first step in attracting the business networking crowd to Facebook. However, he also noted that the feature "had no teeth" because of a lack of privacy controls. That has changed because the new features give users the option of showing private information to only specific friends or "friends of friends," which is similar to features in the more business-oriented LinkedIn professional networking site, Catone added.

"While going after the business networking crowd has never been an objective expressed overtly by the company, it does make sense," he said. "As Facebook's core early audience -- college students -- grows up, they'll need a more secure environment to network with colleagues and friends. Facebook is slowly positioning itself to be a place where both casual and business networking can take place at the same time, which means that rather than maintaining two accounts -- one at Facebook and one at LinkedIn or Xing -- users could stay at Facebook and use the tools they grew accustomed to in college."

Not all industry observers were pleased with the changes. Jeffrey Chester, founder and executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy -- one of the strongest critics of Beacon's initial lack of privacy controls -- noted that Facebook still has to ensure that its members are candidly informed about any personal data shared with advertisers and marketers.

"Its incremental improvements -- all due to the increasing scrutiny in the EU and U.S. and from privacy advocates -- are occurring at a snail's pace," he said. "Facebook's senior managers still have not come to terms with the need for them to ensure transparency and full user control."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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