Facebook privacy changes draw mixed reviews

Facebook's revamped privacy settings will push more user data onto the Internet and, in some cases, make privacy protection harder for Facebook users, digital civil liberties experts said.

While acknowledging that many of the changes unveiled Wednesday will be good for privacy, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Attorney Kevin Bankston said the social-networking giant is also removing some important privacy controls that it should have kept.

"I think you're better off in some ways and worse off in some ways," he said. "It's really a mixed bag."

Ari Schwartz, chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, offered a similarly mixed review. According to him, giving people more control over who sees their individual posts is a good thing, but the new default privacy settings will push a lot more information into the public realm. That "actually has a negative effect on privacy," he said.

Bankston was more forthright in an EFF blog post.

"Our conclusion? These new 'privacy' changes are clearly intended to push Facebook users to publicly share even more information than before," Bankston wrote. "Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data."

Facebook began rolling out its new privacy settings Wednesday, responding to critics who had said the existing system was needlessly complex and frequently ineffective. By simplifying the way privacy is set up, Facebook says it will improve its users' privacy.

"Numerous settings and complicated options can make it harder for people to make informed decisions about their privacy or about the Facebook experience they want," said Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president of communications, public policy and marketing, in a press conference.

To date, between 15 and 20 percent of Facebook's 350 million users take the time to adjust their privacy settings. But with the changes unveiled Wednesday, all users will have to go through a privacy configuration wizard to set their preferences.

Critics say that's where the problems start.

Users who had not previously selected their own privacy settings, and who now go with Facebook's default settings, will be publishing their status messages and wall posts to everyone on the Internet. That will mark a change for most users because until now, Facebook's default settings restricted this material to friends and people within a person's network.

The change will be most noticeable to people who used the default settings in the past and decide to stick with Facebook's new defaults, Schwartz said. "If you haven't set your settings in the past, you'll probably be surprised by what happens," he said. "You'll probably show up in Google."

The EFF's Bankston said some information that could previously be kept from the public -- profile pictures, for example -- will now be publicly available no matter what. Facebook does give users the option of removing this type of information from search engines, however, making it harder for someone who is not connected to a user to view it.

Facebook has also eliminated a privacy option that blocked personal information from being shared via the Facebook API (application program interface). "This is perhaps one of the biggest problems," Bankston said. "Without using any apps at all, your information will be shared with hundreds if not thousands of Facebook application developers by virtue of your friends choosing to use apps," he said.

Facebook is ditching this option because it was not widely used, and contributed to the complexity problem Facebook is trying to tackle, a company spokesman said. "The controls had become too complex," he said. "People were not exercising control because they were overwhelmed by the choices."

Approximately 350,000 people presently block the Facebook API from accessing their data, he added. That's just 0.1 percent of Facebook users.

A large part of Facebook's problem stems from the company's decision to remove networks, which in some cases had grown too large to be meaningful. However, Schwartz said, they did give users a way to post information without sharing it with the world at large.

Now the world at large is going to get a much better look at Facebook than ever before.

(Juan Carlos Perez in Miami contributed to this story.)

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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