True to Form, Facebook Backtracks, Promises Users More Control (some new, and some we used to have)

By now, this series of events is very familiar:

  • Facebook launches new “feature” with little or no warning
  • Feature is automatically activated for millions of users
  • Users get confused and angry
  • Backlash and criticism occurs; users threaten to leave
  • Zuckerberg blogs that he has listened, tells you everyone really wants to share everything, but in the end backtracks a bit

This happened with NewsFeed, Beacon, changes to Facebook’s terms of service, and so on. And it happened again today.

Amid the rising criticism about recent changes, Facebook announced new privacy settings and practices, promising users more, yet simpler controls over the flow of their personal information on the social networking site and beyond.

Here’s how the changes are summarized on Zuckerberg’s blog post:

First, we’ve built one simple control to set who can see the content you post. In a couple of clicks, you can set the content you’ve posted to be open to everyone, friends of your friends or just your friends.

Second, we’ve reduced the amount of basic information that must be visible to everyone and we are removing the connections privacy model. Now we’ll be giving you the ability to control who can see your friends and pages. These fields will no longer have to be public.

Third, we’ve made it simple to control whether applications and websites can access any of your information. Many of you enjoy using applications or playing games, but for those of you who don’t we’ve added an easy way to turn off Platform completely. This will make sure that none of your information is shared with applications or websites.

If you simply want to turn off instant personalization, we’ve also made that easier. Already, partner sites can only see things you’ve made visible to everyone. But if you want to prevent them from even seeing that, you can now easily turn off instant personalization completely.

All in all, these are very important changes that give users some of the control we’ve been seeking (and Zuckerberg keeps referring to as if it always was there, but actually has been disappearing at an alarming rate). Facebook provides additional explanation of the changes — which will be implemented in coming weeks — here.

With these changes, users can more easily set global privacy settings to control their information flows with a few clicks (a helpful new feature). Users can now decide whether to make their “connections” — the pages they “like” — public or not (like they could before). Users can block all applications from ever accessing their information (a new feature), and users can more easily opt-out of Instant Personalization (but it is still opt-out).

Of course, these new privacy settings are closer to how these features should have been designed and deployed in the first place — but it is unsurprising that Facebook would rather try to force the sharing of all one’s personal information rather than give users control. Only under the threat of government intervention, it seems, did Facebook take these serious steps (note how Facebook goes out of its way to tell us that Senator Schumer’s office was consulted about these changes).

But at the end of the day, these changes show that Facebook is capable of designing their services in ways that respect user’s expectations to be able to control their information flows online. Hopefully this represents only the first step towards a (re)commitment by Facebook to honor its core principles.

[image = screencap from Facebook video]


  1. One suggestion is that FB could adopt a simplified UI for privacy controls. I always imagined a more visual settings interface that consists of a series of concentric circles. The center ring is your most private sphere of information sharing. The UI would just allow FB to drag and drop friends into different circles. At the border of each ring, an example of what your FB page would look like could be offered, if the user hovers over that border with their mouse. It’s just one idea for a much larger set of problems, but I think that Facebook would start well by thinking more about the user’s experience.

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