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Facebook app privacy: It's complicated

There's a lot on my Facebook wall, and I don't want it all to be visible to everyone. Unfortunately, privacy controls still leave a bit to be desired.

Earlier this week I wrote a post about how I didn't like that I couldn't alter the Facebook Connect privacy settings for updates from Foursquare, an iPhone app that shares my location through a GPS-enabled city directory. It didn't make sense to me that Facebook Connect information was automatically visible to anyone who had access to posts on my "wall," whereas privacy settings on a third-party app embedded directly on my profile were much more fine-tuned, allowing me to restrict them to specific subsets of friends.

I've been e-mailing back and forth with Facebook, and I've gotten some clarification on how the process works. Privacy controls for embedded apps aren't as simple as I'd thought. I can opt to block the "box" for a third-party game like Mafia Wars or Farmville, as the privacy controls indicate, but activity from those apps--i.e. if I just picked up a new weapon in Mafia Wars--will still show up to anyone who can see what I post on my Facebook wall, like status messages and new friend connections. (You can, however, block individual Platform apps from posting to your wall in the first place.)

"Activity from apps and Connect sites are grouped with the activity you take on Facebook (which then appears on your wall), all of which can be blocked from a select group of people using publisher privacy," Facebook representative Malorie Lucich explained to me via e-mail. "So, for example, if you don't want your boss seeing your Mafia Wars activity and your usual Facebook activity, you can block her/him from viewing your wall."

Everything on the wall, therefore, is treated as a single unit. Except not quite: With status messages and content posted directly through Facebook, as part of Facebook's new privacy controls there's now a drop-down menu that lets me choose exactly who can see that message--the public Web, friends of friends, only my friends or "networks," or stratified groups of friends. That's great, because I can post a status message asking for Christmas present suggestions, and opt to block it from my family or other potential gift recipients.

For third-party apps, I'm not so lucky. I'm sure I wasn't the only Facebook member who figured that blocking the Mafia Wars "box" from a certain list of friends would also block activity updates on my wall. According to Facebook, it doesn't.

I'm also sure I'm not the only one who would like to use Facebook Connect with a service like Foursquare that isn't normally public; I liked some of the comments that would appear on "check-ins" pushed to Facebook (when I checked into a restaurant, for example, a few people responded with their favorite menu items, and another asked about the variety of beers on tap). But wanting to keep them restricted to half or a third or a quarter of my Facebook friends is not always just a matter of privacy--the majority of my Facebook friends have no interest whatsoever in which coffee shop I just checked into on the likes of Foursquare or Gowalla, and out of courtesy I don't want to plaster it all over everyone's news feeds. I'd like Foursquare's implementation of Facebook Connect, theoretically, to only be visible to close friends and people who live nearby.

Facebook is, and should be, proud of the wealth of data that gets shared on members' "walls." On Friday morning, I used my status message to solicit tips for an upcoming tropical getaway, and got some terrific suggestions from people in my "social graph" whom I hadn't talked to in ages. This was a great example of something that I'd like to open up to my entire Facebook network. But when it comes to information that's local, sensitive, or otherwise private, I'd like to be able to restrict it. As Facebook Connect grows bigger and more diverse, these instances are likely to come up more often.

So if I had to come up with a most-wished-for new Facebook feature, this might have to be it.