Navigate Facebook's new privacy paradigm

Once again, Facebook has changed its privacy settings. Today's improvements are still a mixed bag, but a better one: they are generally easier to use but not as simple as they could be. There are a couple of curve balls thrown in, too.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
4 min read

Once again, Facebook has changed its privacy settings. Like the last time this happened, today's improvements are still a mixed bag, but a better one: they are generally easier to use but not as simple as they could be. There are a couple of curve balls thrown in, too.

Watch this: Navigate Facebook's new privacy paradigm

Accessing your privacy settings hasn't changed. Go to the Account tab on the upper right of your Facebook page and scroll down to Privacy Settings. You'll be able to tell if the new settings layout has been pushed out to you, because instead of being greeted by text links to the various options, you'll see the new chart. It's easy to read, but don't let that deceive you--not all settings get equal weight.

Your new settings are automatically based on your previous ones. If you did any tweaking in the old system, they'll be imported as Custom settings on the left nav and under Other on the chart. Also on the left are several preset options: Everyone, Friends of Friends, Friends Only, and Recommended. It's no accident that the Recommended settings are in fact the second-most permissive ones on the list. Despite making the settings easier to manage, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg's strained tones as he unveiled the new paradigm indicate as much as anything else that Facebook wants you to share your data beyond your immediate friends network.

The chart itself is a static image, changeable only by hitting one of the presets or the small "Customize" text link below the chart. The Customize page looks like the text-heavy list of drop-downs from the older settings, but it does unify all those previously disparate settings in one place. Some things are new here, such as Edit Album Privacy and toggling wall postings. "Everyone" means that all Facebook users can see your info, whereas "Friends Only" is the most restrictive--except, of course, that this being Facebook, it's not. Choose Customize and you can further restrict your privacy settings, to either specific friends or just yourself. Still, most major privacy tweaks are now on this one page.

Tour Facebook's new privacy settings (screenshots)

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Above the chart there's a small text link under Basic Directory Information. This allows you to toggle the privacy settings for profile data, including how much of your profile shows up in Facebook-based searches, and your availability to strangers sending friend requests, messages, and viewing your friends list. It also includes ancillary profile data such as your current city and hometown, work and education, interests, and other pages.

It's more than a little irritating that Facebook still refuses to put everything in one place, because so many of the site's features cross-populate through your friends and search engines into the public realm. Facebook could have just made sliders to control everything, but instead you are forced to use drop-down options and a customization pop-up to gain access to all levels of privacy.

Another example of that is how the new settings allow you to block apps. From the main privacy page with the chart, click on the text link below the Applications and Websites link on the bottom left. At the top are icons of the apps you've approved and, through the small text links just below the icons, you can selectively remove or block all apps.

The new Facebook privacy settings' landing page. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Facebook offers its standard four options of customization for the "Game and Application Activity" section just below the app icons, but don't let that lull you into a false sense of security. The "Info accessible through your friends" is ridiculous. It refers to your information that your friends' apps can access through their profiles. Basically, it's a backdoor for apps that you have no control over getting at your data. It's hard to stress how important it is to mark all these off. If you don't, the only other way to prevent your friends' apps from getting access to you is to not share any information with your friends, which defeats the primary purpose of Facebook.

Next on the list are Instant Personalization and public searches. Instant Personalization is a new feature that lets Facebook's partner sites get at your data that you've allowed "Everyone" to see. Thankfully, this is set by default to off--for now.

The apps page lets you kill app access, which is great. Less spectacular is that if you're not careful on this page, you can pass right by the Info option that allows your friends' apps access to your data. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Public and Facebook searches used to be available on the same page. The public search option now lives on the Apps page, and Facebook searches have been moved to the basic directory page mentioned earlier. Again, having everything streamlined instead of trying to manipulate what people are aware of would probably have saved Facebook users some confusion. Wasn't that the whole point of this redesign?

Even with its flaws, the new privacy settings take a step in the right direction, organizing the settings under a more comprehensible scheme. There are serious problems, though, such as the information that is accessible through your friends by default, and which you must disable if you want to prevent your friends' app vendors from getting access to you. Unless you don't care about how much of your information gets around, don't use any of the preconfigured settings besides Friends Only. Caution is still a must for all Facebook users.

Most but not all options can now be controlled from this customization panel. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET