Facebook's Privacy Reboot: Is That all You've Got for Us?

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The new-and-improved privacy settings which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday have landed in my Facebook account. When I read Zuckerberg's description of them, I was cautiously optimistic. Having spent a bit of time exploring them, I'm way less enthusiastic.

Facebook privacy is such a complex topic that you could write a book about it. (Seriously.) But most gripes fall into two general, seemingly contradictory categories:

  • Facebook doesn't give users enough control over privacy!
  • Hey, Facebook provides such a dizzying array of privacy controls that it's hard to figure out what's going on!

Making privacy easy while providing lots of control is a fundamentally thorny challenge. If Facebook has failed to nail it, it's not because the company is stupid, evil, or careless -- it's because this stuff is hard. Its response seems to be based in part on the philosophy that privacy is to a great extent about what you want shared with which types of people.

So the centerpiece of the new settings is a grid that shows three kinds of people ("Everyone," Friends of Friends," and "Friends Only") and a bunch of types of information you store on Facebook, from your status to your snail-mail address. But there's no explanation of what the grid is showing you. It's just not that obvious whether it indicates your current settings, or ones you might want, or what.

It turns out that the first thing you see are your current settings. (Click on the image at right for a closeup of the page where this process starts.) By choosing another tab and then clicking "Apply These Settings," or selecting "Customize settings," you can control who sees what.

If you choose "Everyone," then everyone gets to see all these items. If you choose "Friends Only," then only friends can see them. Very logical so far.

But if you choose "Friends of Friends," only some items (such as your status, relationships, and photos you've been tagged in) are visible to friends of friends. Others (such as your religious views and birthday) show up for friends only. I can't figure out the inconsistency with the other "Everyone" and "Friends Only" options. And while you can choose custom settings for everything it defeats the purpose of this supposedly easier new interface.

Illustration: Lou Beach
The grid isn't comprehensive. It's labeled "Sharing on Facebook," but much of what folks do on Facebook involves third-party apps, and there's no mention of them.

Another Everyone/Friends of Friends/Friends Only setting, covering app activity such as your name showing up on game leaderboards, is salted away on another page in Privacy Settings. Putting it in the grid would have made it easier to find, and would only have required one additional one row.

Even then, I'd probably be confused by the thing. I applied the "Everyone" settings to my profile. Facebook retroactively made some of my photo albums completely public-but not all of them. How'd it choose? Darned if I know.

Here's a summary of the options you'll get once you have access to the new interface (click on the image to see a large reproduction of the succession of screens you'll encounter):

One of the major changes that sparked the recent ruckus was Facebook's new "Instant Personalization" feature, which provides information about you to Yelp, Pandora, and a new Microsoft service called Docs.com to help them customize your experience.

When Facebook announced it, it was on by default, and there were no options relating to it in the's privacy settings -- if you didn't like the idea, you were supposed to go to each third-party service individually to block it.

Instant Personalization is still turned on by default, but at least you can turn it off completely with one click.

You don't, however, get settings that let you pick and choose -- to approve Yelp, for instance, but deny access to Pandora and Docs.

Actually, I can't figure out how to turn these settings off or on individually once you've seen an alert that shows up the first time you visit an Instantly Personalized site.

Nor does Facebook explain what it's sharing or how the third-party sites use the information. Which makes it impossible to come to any informed conclusions about whether you're comfortable with the concept.

I was hoping that this privacy makeover would offer at least two features, neither of which are present:

  • Ultra-easy settings for various levels of privacy that would span everything that has anything to do with Facebook-the service itself, Facebook apps, and other sites. They'd let you choose from a minimum of three privacy levels: extreme privacy, extreme openness, and something in the middle.
  • The ability to opt in to opting out-by telling Facebook you never want new features it might add to share anything about you with anyone without your explicit permission. Zuckerberg's blog post talks says that control "will also apply to settings in new products we launch going forward. So if you decide to share your content with friends only, then we will set future settings to friends only as well. This means you won't have to worry about new settings in the future." But it's not clear what will happen with new offerings if I've chosen different settings for different current features. Once Facebook starts letting me check in to real-world locations, for instance, how will it decide how I want that information shared if I'm currently sharing my status with everyone but hiding all my photos?

Bottom line: Managing your Facebook privacy is still a remarkably convoluted process which isn't explained clearly enough.

Did you check out that succession of screen caps? Whew. That's incomplete, too -- I didn't show the photo album-by-photo album settings, which let you block specific people from seeing your snapshots if you choose.

I'm not arguing that Facebook should do away any of this granularity. Kudos to it for offering it for people who want it. And I'm not a Facebook paranoiac-in fact, I just went in and loosened up my settings.

But when Zuckerberg titled his introductory blog post "Making Control Simple," I hope that didn't mean that the thinks he job is largely done...

This story, "Facebook's Privacy Reboot: Is That all You've Got for Us?" was originally published by Technologizer.

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