Can You Trust Facebook Now?

Facebook's new privacy controls are a good start. But new technology won't fix the company's privacy problems.

As critics howl at Facebook's recent changes to its privacy policies, the company rolled out new, simplified privacy controls on Wednesday.

The service is rolling out a single control to allow users to limit who can see content they post. Users can control who has visibility into their friends' list and personal pages, information previously public to all Facebook users. And Facebook is making it easier for users to opt out of sharing information with partner Web sites.

The changes got positive reviews from privacy advocates. But Facebook still has a long way to go.

While simpler, the new Facebook privacy settings are "still pretty complex," writes Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan.

A for Effort

"I'd give it an A for effort but a C+ to B- for actually solving the overload problem," Sullivan writes in a detailed analysis. "Rather than a 'one click solution' or a single-page recap, there remains a 'flowchart' of options. Though less daunting than in the past, the complexity may still leave users feeling there are too many controls to be in control."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says the privacy improvements are "a positive step" but "there's still more work to be done."

The EFF has sound advice for people who want to maintain tight control over their privacy on Facebook. Facebook's recommended privacy settings would share "a substantial amount" of information with everyone, says the EFF. Instead of using the default settings, users should set the general privacy level to something more restrictive, like friends-only, and then use per-post privacy options to publish to everyone only those particular things that they're sure they want to share with the world.

I solved my Facebook privacy problem by simply assuming, from the very beginning, that everything I posted to Facebook was public, and continued to happily use the service. If there's something I don't want the world to see, I keep it the heck off of Facebook and other social networks.

This sort of controversy is standard operating procedure for Facebook. They take a balls-to-the-wall approach to innovation. While critics would rather they poll their users for permission prior to making changes, that kind of slow, deliberative approach would be fatal to Facebook, writes Henry Blodget at Business Insider. Instead, Facebook makes bold changes -- critics say they're downright reckless -- listens to the screams and howls of outrage, and adjust course accordingly.

Privacy No-Man's Land

And there are always screams and howls of outrage. Facebook's users have such an intense, personal relationship with the service that whatever Facebook does, it makes a significant number of its users scream and howl like burned cats. Even relatively minor changes to the front page layout get large numbers of people spitting mad.

Blodget makes a great point -- that Facebook's entire business lives in a dangerous no-man's-land between public information and private information. On services like blogs and Twitter, the default assumption is that everything is public, readable by anyone in the world. With e-mail and instant messaging, the default assumption is that everything is private, readable only by participants in the conversation. But on Facebook, some things are public to everyone, other things are public some of the time and private other times. It's confusing -- and, because we're dealing with people's most private information and feelings, it's volatile. Blodget writes:

Step back and think about what Facebook is doing here. It is pioneering an entirely new kind of service, one that most of its users have never seen before, one with no established practices or rules. It is innovating in an area--the fine line between public and private--that has always freaked people out. It is allowing people to communicate and share information in ways they never have before. It is making decisions that affect hundreds of millions of people. And it is trying to stay a step ahead of competitors that would like nothing better than to see it get scared and conservative and thus leave itself open to getting knocked off....

If Facebook were to radically change its approach to innovation, meanwhile, seeking prior approval for every change it makes, its innovation would slow to a crawl. It would also sacrifice the opportunity to roll out innovations that initially freak people out but that soon become wildly popular (News Feed). Given that Facebook's whole product is walking this ever-flammable line between public and private, Facebook's users won't likely know what they're cool with until they see it in action. So asking them ahead of time would just lead to a lot of "no's," even with respect to innovations that people would eventually want.

Is the backlash real, or is this something that gets journalists and bloggers in a twist, but regular people don't care about? SearchEnglineLand's Sullivan thinks it's real; he did some calculations in mid-May and concludes Facebook's rate of growth had slowed 25-50%.

The Solution

So how can Facebook restore user trust? That's simple, but not easy: They have to behave in a trustworthy fashion.

That's it, the whole solution. It's not a technology problem, it's not something you throw developers at or put to work a team of user interface designers.

Think about the issue from your own life. If a friend or a family member betrays you, what do you do? You might just write them off and write them out of your life. Or you might decide to try to repair the relationship, in which case the person who wronged you must apologize (Facebook has done that). They must demonstrate sincerity (Facebook has done that with its redesign). But those things are just the prologue -- the only way to restore trust in a broken relationship is for the person who broke the trust to be trustworthy. Not for a day, not for a week, but for a long, long time. Broken trust isn't a problem that can be solved with a quick fix.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

This story, "Can You Trust Facebook Now?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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