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.
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.