Facebook changes, Timeline and apps spark new privacy concerns

September 26, 2011

Facebook’s announcement of site changes that included a new privacy setting, a new Timeline feature and a revamped news feed have sparked rumors of a new fee scheme and renewed privacy concerns. Faster Forward’s Hayley Tsukayama breaks down the facts and fictions of the Facebook redesign:

The Timeline: Pretty much everything Facebook users see and do will change in some way. Your profile, for example, is going to become a personal history, scrapbook, autobiography and news center.

Called the Timeline, the new profile will likely encourage people to put up content that predates their time on the social network. You’ll be able to guide visitors to your profile through your life via an actual timeline on the right side of the page, so they can quickly click to the days of your misspent youth or just see what you’ve been up to since you got your last job. The further back you go, the more content Facebook will hide from the main timeline.

Apps: Users also will be able to add apps that publish content to users’ Timelines automatically. Right now, apps ask users if they want to publish information to their wall before each post, such as when a user reaches a new milestone in a game. Now, Facebook will publish stories with a single permission agreement — for example, users using Spotify will agree to hook their account to the service once, and it will post to their walls every time a track changes.

Some apps, such as The Washington Post’s Social Reader, or Hulu will let you consume news and media content right from Facebook and tell your friends what items you’re reading, watching, or listening.

Is Facebook going to charge a fee?: No. Facebook isn’t going to charge a fee and likely never will. Restating what the company has said since it began, a post to the company’s main page definitively denied the rumor, saying: “We have no plans to charge for Facebook. It's free and always will be.”

Some analysts see the new Facebook features as changing the sharing dynamic on the site to one of “all or nothing.” As Laura June explained:

Just a few days ago, Facebook announced a number of significant changes, the most important of which is the morphing of personal profiles into “timelines,” where each update, tagging, event, and photo is now a “story” of one’s life. The social network will now serve for each person who uses it as a chronological catalogue of events on a line, leading inevitably to death. This is the feature which has gotten the most attention, and I have much to say about it — such as the fact that I find it truly odd to encourage what I can only describe as “instantaneous” nostalgia about events which have just happened. But, in truth, Facebook has long been heading toward this use, and though I don’t really see the attraction personally, I understand that the need to document one’s life in detail has always been an alluring prospect for the human race. The fact that the Timeline is a dumbed down version of scrapbooking — usually the domain of retired people — is also odd to me, but I won’t pretend I don’t understand the draw.

The feature that I find most unsettling, however, is the connection which Facebook now has to applications such as Rdio, a streaming music service which already served as a type of social network: you can have friends and followers, and share your listening habits in a closed off network. Rdio is a tiny service compared to Facebook, but was already connected with it, and had the ability to share a song with the click of a button whenever you wished.

Privacy advocates have already criticized Facebook for the latest changes, and have cautioned users to be aware of how the new site will share information. As Hayley Tsukayama reported:

Users and privacy advocates have reservations about Facebook’s planned redesign, the way the change will affect third-party apps and the network’s general approach to privacy.

Third-party apps will be fully integrated into a user’s profile page, with updates about activity on each app. That means that users won’t actively click to share updates from apps — the apps will add that information to a user’s page automatically.

With this change, users will have to think more carefully about what apps they use, since their private media consumption, exercise routines and other habits could be automatically published on their profiles.

On Sunday, self-proclaimed hacker Nik Cubrilovic accused Facebook of using cookies to track users while they are logged off, something Facebook engineer Gregg Stefancik denied in a comment on Cubrilovic’s post. Stefancik confirmed that Facebook alters rather than deletes cookies when users log out as a safety measure, but said the company does not use those cookies to track users or sell personal information to third parties. He also said that the company does not use cookies to suggest friends to other users.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that the organization is opposed to changes made to the Timeline, Facebook’s newly designed profile page. Acting as a sort of digital scrapbook, the Timeline now shows all the information a user has put on Facebook in chronological order. The new format changes rules about how information is accessed, Rotenberg said, adding that the problem is that this has happened after the company has already acquired user data. EPIC is preparing a letter to the Federal Trade Commission about the changes, he said. The organization has led the charge calling for the agency to look into Facebook’s privacy policies.

More technology coverage from The Post

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