Facebook redesigns privacy settings


Facebook is introducing "privacy shortcuts" at the top of every page on the network as part of a larger redesign of its privacy settings. (Courtesy of Facebook/Courtesy of Facebook)
December 12, 2012

Facebook is taking another swing at simplifying its privacy controls after some users complained the system is confusing.

The main focus of the changes is to clarify for users how their information is shared across the social network. For example, some users have been confused about why a post deleted from their profile page could still appear on their friends’ pages. The new privacy controls will now make that clear, Facebook said.

The changes build on privacy features introduced last year and also aim to clarify problems Facebook has identified with its new, scrapbook-like “Timeline” layout, which displays all the information users have ever publicly posted on Facebook.

Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said that he doesn’t believe the changes do enough to put users in control of their own data. Rotenberg, a vocal critic of Facebook’s mandatory transition to the Timeline format, said that this redesign follows a familiar pattern.

The company, Rotenberg said, tends to “change opt-ins to opt-outs, which means its easier to share data. And then they come back later and say they’re going to give clearer notices.” It would have been better, Rotenberg said, if Facebook had given users the option to change their profiles to the Timeline layout on their own.

The company is aware that users were confused about how the Timeline interacts with the rest of site. “At Facebook we care deeply about avoiding surprises. We want people to understand how they control the information and make the choices that are right for them,” said Erin Egan, the network’s chief privacy officer.

Facebook’s settings, once split between “Account settings” and “Privacy settings” are now unified, with a guide on the left-side of the page that directs users to different kinds of settings. To give users a more immediate snapshot of how their information is being shared on the network, Facebook has added a new lock icon to its top navigation bar with a menu that answers three questions: “Who can see my stuff?,” “Who can contact me?” and “How do I stop someone from bothering me?”

The menu also includes a search function to give users a quick link to frequently asked questions in the network’s help center. A link to the full privacy settings is included at the bottom of the menu, which will appear on every page.

“It’s basically taking settings that exist and up-leveling them,” Egan said. “What we're trying to do is bring this key information up front.”

Facebook also is changing the way that it deals with permissions for apps on its site. On installation, users will see information on what data a particular app accesses, such as publicly posted information and location data. Any app that wants to share information to a user’s Timeline — for example, a fitness app that posts someone’s running time when they’ve finished a lap — will have to ask for that permission at the moment it wants to post the first update to a users’ profile.

Finally, the company has also updated its unified “Activity Log” to let users sort through content by type. Users are a click away from seeing lists of just all the photos they’ve been tagged in or comments they’ve made that are shared with the network at large.

Facebook continues to grapple with the hot-button issue of privacy on its network, which clearly touches a nerve with many of its users. Over half a million of its users voted against the company’s decision to change its privacy policy — including the decision to end users’ ability to vote on these policies. But those numbers failed to reach Facebook’s 300 million vote threshold to make voting results compulsory.

Rotenberg said that Facebook should have listened to the vote in some capacity, noting that it was the largest vote in Facebook history.

“This was from people who cared and voted,” he said. “Facebook then decided to go ahead with the changes anyway.”

Egan said that users who want to talk about privacy on the network have many avenues to give feedback on privacy. The company is rolling out an “Ask the CPO” page where Egan will personally answer questions about privacy, she said, and is also increasing activity on its “Facebook and Privacy” page.

“Feedback is critical and it’s a core component of how we operate,” she said.

(Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)

Related stories:

Facebook confirms results of vote, will change policies

Facebook voting is open; majority voting to keep existing proposals

Facebook proposes to end voting on privacy issues

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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