Facebook's New Privacy Controls: The Good and the Shameful
In response to a backlash over its recent privacy rollbacks, Facebook will consolidate its many control panels into a simplified new privacy interface. But users are still pushed to overshare, and still have to opt out of egregious privacy breaches.
Facebook is making some real changes that will allow users to take back some of their personal information from the public and from third-party websites. But Facebook is also leaving plenty of information exposed, and making users re-claim data Facebook already appropriated from them.
On balance, the new controls aggressively sold to the press today feel like part of the same old con the social network has always run: Misappropriate user information, wait for the outrage, then apologize and beat an oh-so-partial retreat.
Here's a quick look at what privacies Facebook is giving back to users, and which it is keeping for itself and its advertisers.
- Consolidated controls: Facebook appears to have simplified its privacy controls. Instead of six privacy categories with dozens more subcategories, there are now five privacy categories, with the most important categories made prominent and many subcategories visible without leaving the main privacy page. (See comparison picture below.)
- You get your friends and connections back: Your friends list was forced into public view in December, while your "likes and interests," current city and other profile information was converted into public "connections" — or lost forever — in April. You now have the choice to make this information non-public, although it must be shown to at least your friends.
- Big "Off" button for sharing with other companies: You can now keep Facebook from sharing your information with Facebook Applications with one click, and you can turn off "instant personalization" partners like Yelp and Pandora with one click. Previously, you had to opt-out on a per-site and per-Application basis.
New privacy interface (click to enlarge):
- Facebook automatically took away privacies, but isn't automatically giving them back: When Facebook took your friends list public, it didn't ask for permission. If you want to make it private again, you have to go out of your way to do so. Facebook used an intrusive dialog box to make you choose between having your profile "connections" like "likes and interests" be public or deleting them, but it's not going to return to you and ask if you want to make the connections private again, if Zuckerberg's blog post and this excellent New York Times liveblog are anything to go by. And while you were automatically oped in to "instant personalization," in which websites access some of your Facebook data without explicit permission, you'll have to opt out, even if it is through a simplified interface.
- Facebook is still pushing you to overshare: As you can see in the picture of the new privacy interface above, Facebook recommends you make all your photos, status updates and posts visible to the world. Users have said time and again that this is the sort of information they'd rather keep private, especially when it comes to photos. Facebook should keep this information private by default, and let not-so-private people change the settings to share more freely. Of course, that would make it harder to compete with the likes of Twitter, which has tons of public status updates and pictures.
- Mark Zuckerberg is lying about his motivations: Here's something the CEO of Facebook stated during his press conference today: "It's not about the money. It might seem weird, we're not doing this to make more money. For all the people inside the company that could not be more true. It's such a big disconnect that we're doing this for the money."
Facebook is a business. An incorporated, well-organized business, in Silicon Valley with heavy funding from venture capitalists. Facebook's board members brag about how much money the startup takes in. Facebook employees are so hungry to cash out their stock options that the company turned to a Russian investment firm and its scary oligarch backer in order to get enough cash to buy them out.
Facebook is in it for the money, wants to make a lot of money, is in fact fiduciarily obligated to its investors to be "doing this for the money." Facebook is not a hippie collective of open-source do-gooders paid in massages, pot brownies and gratitude. Mark Zuckerberg did not put "I'm CEO, bitch" on his business cards because he cares about you, J. Random User, and he's lying when he says it's not about the money. In Silicon Valley, it's always about the money. And everyone always dissembles about that. Just not this brazenly.
- Mark Zuckerberg never learns (probably because he doesn't want to): Here's another great line from the press conference, from CEO Zuckerberg: "We've learned time and time again that privacy is the most sensitive thing. Now we feel like we have this privacy model that is going to let us scale."
Did you catch that? Facebook has learned its lesson on privacy "time and time again." Which would seem to indicate Facebook has learned its lesson on privacy never, because it has to keep re-learning it. So the 26-year-old CEO who was apparently hacking into people's email accounts in college via their Facebook login info has trouble learning ethical lessons. Just think about that for a while. Let it really sink in. The page for deleting your Facebook account is here for you if you need it when you're done deciding whether to stay on the nauseating dysfunctional roller coaster of exploitation and non-apology that is Facebook.com.
[Pic: Zuckerberg at today's press conference, via Getty Images.]