Facebook Privacy: 5 Controls I'd Like To See

Facebook is expected to announce new streamlined privacy settings for its users during a press briefing on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. Pacific time. The news comes just a few days after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised to introduce "privacy controls that are much simpler to use" for Facebook's more than 400 million users. Following Wednesday's announcement, Facebook will hold a briefing on Thursday in Washington, D.C, which will be open to Congress staff interested in learning more about Facebook's privacy plans.

Facebook's decision to revise its privacy controls is welcome news, but it's not clear yet what privacy changes Facebook has in store for its users. It appears the company is not planning any changes to its actual privacy policies, but will instead give users easier choices about how their personal details are being used on Facebook.

Nevertheless, Facebook deserves credit for responding to criticisms and implementing changes that will, hopefully, give users a simpler way to understand what they're sharing on Facebook. Here are five things I'm hoping to see from Facebook on Wednesday.

Opt-in, Not Opt-out

Facebook should make a public vow that whenever it introduces new features that can expose user data to third-parties the company will let users opt-in to the new feature and not opt-out.

On several occasions, Facebook has introduced new features that automatically exposed user data to third parties, such as Facebook Beacon and the new Instant Personalization program. An opt-out model forces Facebook users to turn these new features off instead of letting them decide whether or not they want to use the new feature in the first place.

Facebook quickly backtracked on Instant Personalization and made it opt-in, for which the company should be commended. Nevertheless, Facebook should vow never to mess with user settings again, and make every new feature it introduces opt-in and not opt-out.

Third-party Data Control

Whenever you sign up to use a third party application on Facebook all your publicly available information becomes accessible to that app. But does a company like Zynga, the makers of Farmville, really need access to a list of your favorite music and movies? Canada's privacy commissioner didn't think so during a review of Facebook's privacy policies last year.

In fact, Canada's privacy watchdog recommended that Facebook require third-party apps to explicitly tell users what personal information the app wants and then get permission from the user to access each piece of data. In practice, this would mean you'd be presented with a check list of information such as your Likes and Interests, location and public Wall posts. Then you'd get to decide which of your details the app could access.

Disconnect From Friends

In my view, one of the more troubling aspects of Facebook's privacy controls is the fact that your Facebook friends can easily expose your personal information to third parties. For example, if Bob signs up to play Mafia Wars that application can then access Bob's friend list and all of his friends' publicly available information.

To Facebook's credit, you can stop some of your data from being leaked by your friends by clicking on Account>Privacy Settings>Applications and Websites>What your friends can share about you. However, even if you make it through Facebook's privacy maze to find this setting, you still won't be able to stop third parties from seeing your Likes and Interests, the city you live in, and other data Facebook considers to be publicly available information.

To put it mildly, this is crazy. Facebook execs are famous for claiming that its users are in control of their Facebook data, and can decide how it is shared. But clearly that is not the case if my friends can share my data without my knowledge. Facebook needs to put a stop to this practice of indirectly sharing user data with third-parties. It's a privacy loophole, and Facebook needs to close it.

Granular Versus Simple

Although Facebook's current privacy set up is very confusing, it is also very granular and allows users to have a fair amount of control over their profile information. Instead of throwing out its complex controls, Facebook should give users a choice between using the simplified controls and the more complex ones. That way anyone who wants to exercise minute control over their sharing can still do so, while others can opt for privacy controls that are easier to understand.

Data Export

This isn't really a privacy control, but it ties into Facebook's theme of giving users control over their data. Facebook should give users a simple tool that can export all your personal information to your desktop including your Likes and Interests, photos, Friend list, Wall posts, and so on. That way users will feel more comfortable knowing they can pull all their information out of Facebook with just a few clicks. Admittedly, this is a scary prospect for Facebook, but the company might find that people are more willing to share their data if they know they can yank it off of Facebook any time they like.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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