Facebook's Privacy Changes Get Mixed Reviews

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Facebook's Privacy Changes Get Mixed Reviews
After weeks of derision, Facebook finally unveiled a new, simpler privacy policy. The three big changes were: aggregating all privacy settings into one simple control; blocking unwanted visitors to your profile and others; and stopping third-party applications from sneaking into your personal information. The goal was to silence the crowd of detractors and regain Facebook's reputation as a safe place to network.

Then came the wave of opinions. The overwhelming reaction to Facebook's alterations was a sideways-thumbs-up. Good, perhaps better -- but not best.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) waffled a bit in its statement -- nothing is perfect, after all -- but it eventually came around. "The addition of simplified options (combined with the continued ability to fine-tune your settings if you wish) and user control over Facebook's 'connections' are significant improvements to Facebook's privacy," Chris Conley wrote on the ACLU blog.

The ACLU also took a slice of credit for the changes, citing its 80,000-signatures-strong petition ... and it has no intention of rest: another petition has been created to motivate Facebook to maintain its promises.

Computerworld interviewed both Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum and Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. "This is a very significant improvement in their approach to privacy, and it helps consumers. The controls are much improved," Dixon said. "It's promising and a very good step forward."

"I'm not sure yet whether concerns about collecting and sharing information for behavioral advertising and other uses have been completely addressed, so I would say: Good start, let's see what happens and what more needs to be done," Grant said.

Ars Technica said that Facebook "finally gets it" with its new settings. "As a veteran Facebook user, I can say that the new settings seem simplified while at the same time allowing granular control if I want it. When I have counseled friends and family on how to change their settings in the past, I have had to walk them through a complex process, and the one- (or two-) click process for most profile settings will be a very welcome change for many users," Jacqui Cheng wrote.

Simplicity isn't always the key, as Lifehacker wrote. "Unfortunately -- in some ways -- with simplicity comes a lack of control, and Facebook has made sure that the control you don't have is over information that is made public." Whitson Gordon found a few tiny problems, namely over photo tags. "You can control who can view photos and posts you've been tagged in, but you can't stop people from tagging you, which was one of the glaring features missing in Facebook's privacy settings before."

"Meaningful steps" is what The Financial Times said -- but reporter David Gelles also warned that the difficulties are far from over. "Matters for the company may yet grow more complex. Facebook has outgrown its roots as a quaint network for friends and family. As it asks members to use the site in more public ways, it will face a higher bar of public accountability from users and regulators." Gelles also noted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg still has to convince the world that these changes are concrete.

Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke to the New York Times about his organization's impressions. Opsahl said the new settings were a step forward but "... that Facebook should not push users into the instant personalization feature without their consent." Instant personalization is Facebook's link to third-party Web sites such as Yelp and Pandora that shared user's opinions on shops and tunes.

admitted he's a "shill" for Facebook but that his relationship with the site has grown complicated. "[Facebook] is a very ambitious company that changes its approach to the world every year or two and doesn't have a good roadmap of what's ahead. Even Zuckerberg, in the interview I did with him, admitted he doesn't know where Facebook is going tomorrow. Some of that is excusable, we are radically changing our entire culture due to a range of new web services, but some just needs a more steady and predictable approach that will come as Facebook grows into a more mature company rather than a rough-and-tumble-run-by-20-year-olds startup."

A big ouch! came from ZDNet's Zack Whittaker. "If I didn't face social ostracisation [sic] or exclusion, I would have shut down my Facebook profile weeks, if not months ago. These new privacy settings mean jack squat and are only being rolled out to satisfy the press-hungry needs of the wider reading public."

Facebook deserves a healthy pat on the back for doing what was necessary to not only quiet the angry throngs but also improve -- and perhaps (later) set an example for -- privacy on the Internet. But as the opinions above clearly state, that pat should turn into a shove. Facebook's potential failure here is to rest on its laurels and congratulate itself for a job well done. The job isn't finished; there's a ways to go.

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