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Facebook ratchets up privacy controls (again)

This time the social network is responding to advocacy groups' and policymakers' concerns about the amount of user data exposed to third-party developers.

A recent simplification of Facebook's user privacy controls wasn't enough for some policymakers.

On Thursday, in conjunction with the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, Facebook announced a new set of modifications to its user privacy controls as well as its developer API, and the targets of these changes are the thousands of third-party applications built on Facebook's developer platform. That means there may be major implications for developers--some of whom rely almost exclusively on Facebook activity as a revenue source.

The Canadian Privacy Commissioner's office released a set of recommendations for Facebook last month, specifically highlighting concerns that third-party applications could access a significant amount of users' personal data. "It's clear that privacy issues are top of mind for Facebook, and yet we found serious privacy gaps in the way the site operates," commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said in a release at the time.

Facebook's newest set of changes will require third-party applications to specify which fields of user data they access (birthdays, favorite music, geographic location, etc.) and will require users to offer explicit permission before an app can access any of their friends' profile data. This is also in tune with recommendations offered earlier this week by a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which highlighted the amount of personal data that third-party apps can access--sometimes without a user knowing it.

"Our productive and constructive dialogue with the Commissioner's office has given us an opportunity to improve our policies and practices in a way that will provide even greater transparency and control for Facebook users," Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president of global communications and public policy, said in a release Thursday. "We believe that these changes are not only great for our users and address all of the Commissioners' outstanding concerns, but they also set a new standard for the industry."

But what does it mean for developers? This could make it difficult for some apps--particularly the sillier ones that rely on heavy viral spread and often one-time use--to gain traction and stay effective. These are similar concerns to those that arose when Facebook cracked down on apps that it deemed "spammy" (and often rightfully so). But on the other hand, the new privacy controls could stem off bad press that could easily paint the developer platform as a whole as unsafe or untrustworthy.

"It is important for developers to have access to information, but we want to balance that with transparency and control for users," Ethan Beard, Facebook's director of platform product marketing, said in a blog post geared toward developers.

"We have committed to making these enhancements over the next twelve months, and anticipate a lengthy beta period including opportunities for you to provide input, multiple blog posts, and updated documentation delivered well ahead of time," Beard's post continued. "Understanding that this will likely require modifications to your code base, we want to give you the earliest heads up that these enhancements are on our road map."