By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009; C06
Uh, about that status update on Facebook last night . . . you may want to make sure that information isn't available to more than just your friends.
The popular networking site introduced new privacy settings on Wednesday that are supposed to give its 350 million users more control over what information they share and whom they share it with. But public interest groups are concerned that Facebook's default settings for how far that information can travel are too broad. They also worry that the new program could open up a user's personal profile information to anyone on the Web unless instructed otherwise.
"Granular controls are great and we support them, but this very well could drive less privacy on Facebook," said Ari Schwartz, vice president of Center for Democracy and Technology.
Beginning this week, Facebook members can customize every piece of data about them on the site. They can control who sees personal information such as age, name, gender and workplace; and status updates and photos. In some cases, they can restrict access to photos to just one or two people or allow basic profile information to go out to the entire Web.
The move is seen by some analysts as Facebook's attempt to compete with Twitter, a micro-blogging network in which users can broadcast any 140-character messages to the entire Twitter user base. The messages, in turn, can be accessed by anyone on the Internet.
With the new settings on Facebook, that status update on snow falling in Peoria, Ill., can be tweaked for only relatives in Florida to see. Those photos of Mardi Gras can be blocked from co-workers. And those links to Tiger Woods stories can be broadcast to all of Facebook's universe if you want.
"We're asking our 350 million users to think about privacy for the first time," said Tim Sparapani, Facebook's director of public policy. (Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is on Facebook's board of directors.) "We're actually giving our users control over their data and asking every single one of them to go through the process of deciding how they want to share."
All Facebook users will see a pop-up window that prompts them to adjust their settings or stick with their old settings. The site's recommended settings will be the default, and some of those recommendations don't sit well with public interest groups.
For example, status updates that were formerly limited to a user's network of friends will now be recommended for friends of friends. The default for profile information -- including a picture, gender and age -- will now go out to the entire Web.
While Facebook users will be able to choose their privacy settings, the problem is that most people don't take the time to do so and may simply stick with the defaults. Others may find the process confusing and may not understand how to adjust those settings. Facebook said about one in five users currently adjusts privacy settings.
Perhaps the best advice for Facebook users? Post with care.