Facebook Privacy Changes – a step forward?

Over the last few weeks there has been mounting criticism of Facebook’s privacy rules and changes.  I have been one of those – my point being that Facebook is so easy to use, yet the privacy controls so complex that I felt this was a deliberate policy to effectively trick users into greater openness than they realised.  Today Facebook announced changes in their privacy settings through their blog and with an updated privacy explanation page. So have Facebook done enough to counter the criticism?

My first reaction, and with only the two references to go on, is that they have moved to a simpler system which is good – though it is not as simple as it could be.  First the good bits:  It appears we do now have a one click ‘Master Control’ to set “your commonly used items” such as posts, photos, etc to Friends only, Friends of Friends, or Everyone – this is much, much better and is to be applauded.  Also in his post Mark Zuckerberg states “this control will also apply to settings in new products we launch going forward” – what this means is that if I set the ‘Master Control’ to ‘Friends only’, then future Facebook privacy control settings changes won’t override this – this is also a very good change (albeit one that should have been there before).  Finally, on the positive side Facebook now state that Friends Lists and Pages no longer HAVE to be public – I can set them to be Friends only – another long overdue change.  So in summary on the good parts, Facebook have listened and have moved to a simpler system.

Despite these very positive changes, I still have some reservations.  Facebook have listened (they had to!), but if you look just a little at the detail you can see that Facebook’s desire for you to make all your data open to the world and to lull you into ignoring privacy, is still as strong as it was.  This is most clear if you look at the “Recommended” settings in the diagram at the top of the privacy explanation page.

Why should it be recommended that all my posts and photos and family and relationships be open to “Everyone” on the internet?  Clearly most people will just click the recommended settings, which will also no doubt be applied by default for users, thereby giving up their privacy.  My issue here is that for the non-tech savvy they are being pushed in a direction which causes them to be more open than they are aware – I think this is not following the duty of care for their users that I would expect of a truly ethical company.  Nonetheless I can’t argue that it isn’t clear(ish) so, as Mark says in his post that this is the last change they are going to make to the privacy settings, it is now a case of if you like the constraints then use Facebook and if you don’t then quit.

There are a couple of other minor negatives such as the need to go to subsidiary privacy settings for some features (why???) and some other default settings that are questionable (e.g. do we really need our activities to be visible by default), but Facebook have at least been clear on their direction.  You may like it or may not – it is now up to the market to decide.  I suspect that with 400M+ users Facebook is still going to be a driving force on the internet for a while yet.  Will their radical approach to openness become the norm, or will users (eventually) drive back to a more private exchange of information with just their friends.  I am in the latter camp, but time will tell if I am in the minority or the majority.

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