Facebook simplifies privacy options

Following through on plans announced a few months ago, Facebook is rolling out changes on Wednesday to its privacy settings intended to make them simpler to adjust and understand by its 350 million end users.

In addition to consolidating some privacy options and grouping them in a single interface, Facebook will also provide new tools designed to walk end users through the settings.

Also, Facebook users will now be able to establish a privacy setting for every item they post on the site via a drop-down menu.

“We believe people should have the ability to share information with only the people they want. We also believe the best time to make this decision is at the very moment the person is sharing something, not months or even years before on a settings page far away,” said Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of communications, public policy and marketing, in a press conference. “We want to make privacy something that is considered in context of what’s being shared, so that users have more control every step of the way.”

As part of this initiative, all Facebook users will be prompted to review and confirm their privacy settings. The page will list the items with privacy that needs to be confirmed and give users the option to retain their existing setting or change it to a setting Facebook recommends. Depending on the item, the Facebook suggestion may be either to relax the privacy control or tighten it. In that page, some of the Facebook suggestions will be preselected for the users, who will have to manually pick the old setting if they don’t agree with the Facebook suggestion.

Facebook had indicated its intention to make these changes back in July, when it publicly acknowledged that its privacy controls had become scattered across multiple settings pages and that they lacked consistency. This resulted in confusion among many end users, who then didn’t take proper advantage of Facebook’s very granular privacy settings.

“Numerous settings and complicated options can make it harder for people to make informed decisions about their privacy or about the Facebook experience they want,” Schrage said.

As previously announced, Facebook has done away with its regional network option, which let end users make their profile viewable by others located in their same geography. Many regional networks had become too big and don’t necessary reflect a common interest among their members. Regional networks has been replaced with four options: friends; friends of friends; everyone; and customized. People can still choose to make their profile open to others in their work and school networks.

The “everyone” option means the information is available to anyone on the Internet, even if they’re not logged into Facebook, and can be indexed by external search engines.

“We’re moving away from our outdated regional network-based model to a new simpler model based on contextual privacy, where users control the privacy over every single thing they share at the time they choose to share it,” Schrage said.

As it indicated in October, Facebook is also making some basic profile information publicly available, including name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friend list and promotional “Pages” a user is a fan of. The idea is to make it easier for people to find friends, especially those with common names.

“Philosophically, we know people come to Facebook to connect. Also, we know that people who find their friends and are found by their friends, get more value from the service,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s vice president of product management. “An overwhelming majority of users already make this information available to everyone.”

However, Facebook will still let users exclude themselves from being found via Facebook’s search engine and via external search engines like Google. People will also be able to limit who sends them messages and friend requests to friends and friends of friends.

This basic public information will also be available to third-party applications built for Facebook, Cox said. “Any additional information will require consent from the user before it’s made available,” he said.

Updated at 2:15 p.m. PT to add more details about the changes.

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