After Criticism, Facebook Tweaks Friends List Privacy Options

Facebook's new privacy controls remain a work in progress a full 24 hours after release and months after they were announced. Responding to criticism over making its users' Friends Lists public, Facebook is rolling out a new option that allows users to protect their Friends List from viewing or searching.

When Facebook began rolling out its new privacy platform, users began noticing that their Friends List had become public and could not be hidden. The list includes the identities of everyone the user has "Friended" and some users don't want the information made public.

Businesses and their users should exercise special caution because of the relationships--both business and personal--that may be revealed through a user's Friend list. These could be mined by competitors or in some cases used to develop competitive intelligence about a target company.

PC World, responding to reader concerns, has spent most of Thursday afternoon and into the evening talking to Facebook representatives, who released the following statement a short time ago:

"We have heard user concerns and we will soon enable people to hide their friend lists. Those who choose to hide their friend lists will not have their lists discoverable through search engines or viewable by other users," the company said in a prepared statement.

Readers had expressed concern that making Friends Lists public could allow businesses or repressive governments to misuse the information. They felt--with reason--that Facebook's new privacy controls made the information easier for third parties to misuse.

Here is Facebook's response:

"More importantly, we believe that Facebook, as demonstrated during the Iran elections and events in multiple other countries since our inception, plays a critical role in allowing people to communicate, organize and stand up against oppressive regimes and there is real value of connecting and sharing, which is what we're trying to facilitate."

Thank you for the flag waving, though talking to Facebook, or at least the people Facebook wants me to talk to, I am impressed that they do care and want to get things right--and are willing to change in midstream if necessary.

Facebook told me that it would still be theoretically possible for an application the user had approved for access to the Friend List to misuse the information, and this could, theoretically again, include some sort of rogue app or malware.

Not as clear is what access Facebook's new-found best friends, Google and Bing, might have to Friend Lists and what they might do with the information they receive. It is possible there is no risk here, but given Facebook's history of privacy flaps, there is reason to be concerned, too.

My take: I am not 100 percent clear on what Facebook is doing to protect users's Friend Lists. I know the information, in the wrong hands, could be very damaging to some users in both their personal and business lives. I believe Facebook has become sensitized to the issue and expect to see changes, perhaps beyond those announced late today.

The rollout of Facebook's new privacy options has, at a technical level, gone less than smoothly, taking more time than expected. There have also been changes made during the rollout that have added to the confusion.

Facebook users would be wise to revisit their privacy options over the next few days and make the changes they consider appropriate. Even if you have already made changes, it is important to check the options available as things remain fluid.

While I am concerned that changes announced in July and rolled out in December are still not right, Facebook probably deserves credit for responding quickly to unforeseen problems.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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