How to fix Facebook's new privacy settings

The social network's new privacy system is flexible and powerful, but the initial settings page appears written to hide that goodness. Here's how to fix it.

How Facebook said good morning today. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

When logging in to Facebook Thursday, I, like millions of other people, got the directive to update my privacy settings to fit in to the new, "simplified," scheme.

But at their core, the Facebook privacy settings have not been simplified. Beyond the set-up page, Facebook's privacy controls are now more complex and more powerful. The new set-up page seems more designed to pry this privacy from you than give you access to the new, and excellent, controls that Facebook has put in place.

What gets me about the page is that it doesn't seem to be designed for the users of the service. I get the impression it's set up to get users to give Facebook more permission than they should, to put their private data in the public sphere.

It does this by organizing around its "recommended" privacy settings rather than by your previous settings, and by not giving you access to the fine-grained control that's under the hood.

Facebook's new simple privacy settings page wants you to make all your posts and photos visible to the whole Web by default. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

If you accept the tacit recommendations on the page, items that you likely used to keep restricted to just people in your network or to your extended network will be visible to everyone on the Web. Data that will be exposed includes your wall posts and photos. That's what Facebook recommends, and apparently wants. Likewise, your political and religious views, per Facebook recommendation, will now be shared with your entire extended network, which, if you're reasonably connected in the world, will easily include people with whom you'd rather not share this information.

I understand why Facebook is attempting to expand the permissions it collects from users to share their information. The more information that is open, the more interesting Facebook is to people trying to get in to the system or to expand their own networks. And the more people use Facebook to define their social circles, the more potentially monetizable data Facebook has, and the more valuable and competitive its database is, compared to other social systems.

Moreover, the more public Facebook users' updates are, the better Facebook can fend off Twitter, which has a social system that is by default open. On Twitter, unless users specify otherwise, anyone can follow them, and all updates are public. Facebook's social graph has been historically closed: Friending has to be mutual, and updates, so far, have been limited to just friends.

With the new defaults, Facebook becomes more searchable, more Twitter-like, and gets more traffic from search engines.

In return for asking for this openness, though, Facebook is giving users something new and valuable: The capability to control who can see each individual post with incredible specificity. I especially like the feature that lets a user put up a post that's open to their entire network (friends of friends) except for a specific person or people. It's a great feature for gossips, or for someone who wants to communicate with everyone they know--except their mother.

But I'd like to propose to Facebook that it re-work its new initial privacy page with one designed to help users, not Facebook's Google rankings. Here it is:

In this invented settings screen, Facebook keeps users' permissions at their current settings unless they're explicitly changed. The screen also gives users realistic privacy options for the main content types. Rafe Needleman/CNET

By default, this maintains your current settings. It also gives you relevant, if simplified, options for each of the main content types. And, finally, it's not subtle about alerting you that "everyone," in Facebook parlance, means everyone on the whole Web.

Meanwhile, here's how to exercise full control over your Facebook privacy settings. First, blast past the new simple settings page. It doesn't matter what you put on it. Then go straight to the top menu, and under the Settings drop-down pick "Privacy Settings." From that screen you can select several privacy-related categories. The most important is the "Profile Information" page, which gives you very precise, fine-grained control over who can see what. This is the privacy screen you should spend time thinking about and working on. Skip the over-broad and poorly-designed new set-up screen that Facebook is now forcing on its users.

 

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