Social networking software

Has Facebook Finally Figured Out Privacy?

Facebook unrolled three new features that give users greater control over how their data is used and shared, which means the social networking giant may finally be learning from its past privacy gaffes. The changes include a simplified Groups feature that lets you easily share data such as photos or Wall posts with select friends. Also, soon you will be able to download nearly all your Facebook data including wall posts, photos, videos, notes, events, e-mail, and your friends list into a simple compressed HTML file. Lastly, Facebook has created a new applications dashboard so you can see how often third-party applications are accessing your Facebook data and what types of data they can access.

Even more surprising than Facebook's changes is that, at least so far, the new features are getting positive early reviews from privacy watchdogs and advocacy groups. The Center for Democracy and Technology called Facebook's new features "a huge win for consumers and the company alike" and said "Facebook has positioned itself as a privacy innovator." Will privacy critics still have Facebook to kick around in the future or has the company finally figured out user privacy? Let's take a look.

Groups

Facebook is phasing out its old invitation-based Groups feature in favor of a simplified service that lets you set up a private group among your Facebook friends. Under the new service, all you have to do is choose to start a new Group from the left column, type in your friends' names you want to add to the group, save the changes and you're done.

Facebook's new Groups are private by default so that only the people you selected to be in the group can see the group's wall posts and other data. The group name and member list, however, will be public. The new feature also adds multiuser Facebook Chat so that all your group members can participate in an online discussion at once. The Groups feature also includes an e-mail address that lets group members send Wall posts via regular e-mail, and your groups can also collaborate on a text document. Facebook's old Groups feature will be discontinued, according to Facebook, but your existing Groups will not be deleted.   It's not clear whether old Groups will get the new Groups format.

Overall, Groups sounds like a great feature, but there are a few qualms with the new service. In typical Facebook fashion, the new Groups feature is opt-out not opt-in so others can automatically add you to a group. Although this may not be a big deal for most people, it's easy to imagine situations where the new Groups feature could prove to be embarrassing. One obvious situation would be if a friend adds you to a group with a conservative or liberal political focus that you might not want co-workers or family members to see. You will be able to opt out of these groups if you want, and once you do you cannot be re-invited to that group unless you explicitly authorize it.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also had a great suggestion for Facebook's new Groups feature: anonymous groups where users can join without revealing their true identity. That may be contrary to Facebook's concept of making life as transparent as possible, but imagine the power of being able to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or similar support group via Facebook using multiuser chat. Now that's a powerful social interaction.

Download your data

You will now be able to download almost all of your Facebook data as a ZIP file with just a few clicks. There are many potential uses for this feature. If you want to leave Facebook you can take your Wall posts and other data with you, or maybe you just want to save a copy of all your Facebook photos onto your desktop.

Once the ZIP file is downloaded just double-click to decompress the file, and you'll have a structured HTML folder you can use to view your content in your Web browser. I haven't tried it out yet, so I am not sure how well the file will work. But if it's a basic HTML folder, it should be a fairly straightforward process to navigate through the folder and subfolders to pull out different data types such as photos, videos and notes.

The one thing you won't be able to take with you is the contact information for your friends such as e-mails and phone numbers, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That may be disappointing to some, but it's hard to fault Facebook for erring on the side of too much privacy rather than too little.

Apps Dashboard

Want to know how often Zynga's Farmville or Yelp is asking for your Facebook data? Facebook's new apps dashboard will let you see what all those apps are up to, including how often they are accessing your profile and which pieces of information they can access. You will also be able to revoke the application and limit an app's ability to contact you right from the new dashboard. The new feature will be available under Account>Privacy Settings and then click "Edit your settings" under Applications and Websites at the bottom of the Facebook privacy page.

Missing from the new dashboard is the ability to revoke access to specific pieces of data an application wants to use. Let's face it, a Facebook game may want to access my Facebook videos or notes, but does it need that information to help me become a mob boss or super farmer? Of course not.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation likes the new control apps dashboard, but says Facebook should allow you to see how often applications that your friends have authorized are accessing your data. Third-party applications that your Facebook friends add to their profiles also have access to your Facebook data. To control the information your friends can share about you click on Account>Privacy Settings then click on "Edit your settings" under Applications and Websites. On the next page, click on the "Edit settings" button in the section titled "Info accessible through your friends."

Facebook's new features are a step in the right direction in terms of privacy, but it remains to be seen whether Facebook will continue to respect user privacy the next time it introduces new features. But if the social networking giant keeps its focus on allowing users to control how their data is shared and export their data whenever they like, then Facebook just might regain some of that lost user trust.

Facebook's new features are rolling out now, but it may take a few days before you see them in your account.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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