Do Facebook's new privacy settings let it off the hook?

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces sweeping changes to privacy controls following a month of vicious member and lawmaker backlash. But they won't quell the storm.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes the stage Wednesday morning at a high-profile press conference he called to talk about privacy controls. James Martin/CNET

There was a distinct tension in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's rhetoric as he unveiled major changes to the massive social network's much-maligned member privacy controls in a press conference on Wednesday.

On one hand, he said that the demand was there from concerned members and lawmakers to do something about confusing privacy settings and changes to how members' data is used in the wake of its F8 developer conference. On the other, he repeatedly insisted that the social network's nearly 500 million users do, in fact, want to share information rather than keep things as private as possible.

Facebook's new privacy controls, which will be rolling out "over the next few days or weeks" according to Zuckerberg, may very well quell some of the fears that members have had about how the company handles the vast amount of personal data stored on its servers. A post on the Facebook blog details them in full: As expected, the centerpiece of the changes is a single page for setting Facebook information visible to just friends, friends of friends, or the Web at large.

Crucial to this is Facebook's acknowledgment that on a member's profile, not all information is equal with regard to sensitivity. "When we went through our December privacy transitions, we asked everyone to make all their information open to everyone," Zuckerberg said, referring to the last round of changes to its privacy policies late last year.

"There are really big buckets of information that should be available to each field (on the new privacy settings page)." For example, he said that personal contact information is something that members will probably want to restrict to their friends. Photographs would presumably be shared with friends of friends. Twitter-like status updates about eating cheeseburgers, meanwhile, could go out to the Web at large.

A screenshot of Facebook's new privacy controls page. Facebook

By the numbers, a lot has been done. Previously, there were 50 settings that members would have to tweak in order to make all information private; now, it's more like 15. The number of Facebook "privacy center" pages has dropped from 13 to eight. There's even a way to opt out of all Facebook Platform third-party activities entirely (though, it should be said, not advertisers). It's unlikely that many members will do this, considering the fact that it would block so many of the services that have kept Facebook members addicted to the site (like the popular game Farmville) as well as Facebook-powered log-ins on third-party Web services. But it's a sign that the pressure really was mounting, and Facebook knew it had to do something.

But the announcement was nevertheless tinged with a hint of, "Are you sure?" Zuckerberg dropped all sorts of factoids that pointed to members' desire to share more information rather than be closed off; he claimed that members are more likely to be fearful of the persistent false rumor that Facebook will start charging for subscriptions than of privacy issues, and that a drop in its algorithm-calculated word-of-mouth reputation following F8 was actually due to a change in the News Feed that displayed fewer updates from Facebook's wildly popular games.

"We are really going to try to not have another backlash."
--Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Whether members do, in fact, want to be more public than private, there are a few issues that still may plague Facebook once the privacy changes have gone live. The first is that much of the hullabaloo surrounding Facebook's recent changes wasn't necessarily the changes themselves, but how easily and willfully the company could make a major turnaround in user experience. Some members still may not trust the company out of a concern that this could happen again all too easily. True, Zuckerberg assured in the press conference that "we are really going to try to not have another backlash" and that "this is the end of the overhaul that we're doing." But this may not thoroughly convince concerned users.

Second, though some privacy groups have already released statements to express their approval ("Facebook is finally friending privacy again," the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California cheerfully asserted in a press release, and the Progress and Freedom Foundation called the new tools "powerful" and said "Facebook has employed a potent weapon to deal with marketplace apprehensions: self-regulation"), there has not yet been word on whether D.C. lawmakers, like a coalition of concerned senators or the Federal Trade Commission , will agree with them. Some critics have said that rather than being opt-out, sharing data with third parties on Facebook should be opt-in in the first place. Considering how much this would undermine the power of Facebook's developer platform, it's unsurprising that Facebook doesn't want to do this.

Third, Facebook has officially been thrown onto a big international stage with regard to privacy and security, and anything it does in the future that puts its integrity or safety in question will become a major story whether its privacy controls are a success or not. It was far more of a story than it would have been a year ago when Facebook investor Jim Breyer's account was compromised by a hacker, or when user data was sent to advertisers in what Facebook says was an accidental leak. What would have been a niche security-news story, particularly if Facebook patched the problem quickly, is now of global interest.

"I started Facebook when I was 19 and it's amazing to look back at how it has evolved," Zuckerberg, who recently turned 26, wrote on the company blog. "There have been a lot of changes over the years as we've continued to innovate, and I appreciate that you have all stuck with us. Each time we make a change we try to learn from past lessons, and each time we make new mistakes too. We are far from perfect, but we always try our hardest to build the best service for you and for the world."

At the very least, he seems to be well aware of the fact that he sure isn't in college anymore.

 

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