Facebook finally giving users more privacy control

New settings will start rolling out in coming days that make it easier for users to know exactly who can see what they post and to block unwanted photos and other items tagged by others.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read
Facebook is making it easier for people to know who can see what they post on the site.
Facebook is making it easier for people to know who can see what they post on the site. Facebook

Facebook is announcing changes today that will let people quickly know exactly who can see everything they post and to block unwanted photos and other items tagged by others from their profile page.

The company also is making a semantic modification that will eliminate a lot of confusion for new Facebook users--changing "everyone" to "public." Currently, many people think that setting their sharing to "everyone" means everyone on the social-networking site, when it actually means "everyone on the Internet."

Overall, the changes make it easier for people to understand what audience will be seeing what they post on Facebook and to control who sees what others post that refers to them. The changes will start rolling out in coming days and people will be prompted with a tour option when they are available.

Facebook users have long complained that it's not always clear who can see what content is posted, among other concerns. Meanwhile, Google+ has been praised for avoiding some of the Facebook (and Buzz) privacy pitfalls by allowing users to easily control who they share content with. Asked if the Facebook changes were in response to Google+, a Facebook representative said no.

"We really wish we could move that fast. We've been working on these products for the last several months and iterating over time," Meredith Chin, manager of product communications at Facebook, told CNET this morning. "We want to make sure that any time (users) go to post something on Facebook they can answer the question 'who can see this?' It's right there at their fingertips."

Erica Newland, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, praised all the Facebook changes. "I think we are seeing a trend right now towards empowering users to have granular controls over types of information they share or information about them that is shared," she said. "It's a sign that companies like Facebook and Google are competing on privacy."

"I'm pleased they are moving in a direction of providing more granular controls on profile posts and allowing the ability to untag things," said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noting that EFF's Bill of Rights for Social Network Users from last year called for such user controls. "Giving people additional controls is good so long as those controls are understandable and easy to use. It can backfire if controls are too complicated. That's been some of the problem they've had in the past."

As for Facebook's changes, for one, the controls for who can see specific content--the choices now being "public," "friends" or "custom"--will be accessible right next to the item and will be changeable with one click from there. So, when you want to remember who will see an item you just posted you can click on a small drop-down menu icon to the upper right of the item instead of having to dig through your privacy settings page to see what settings you created when you created your account.

You will be able to see who can see all content on your profile page this way, as well as who can see the comments you make on other peoples' posts and photos and the items you tag. Eventually, Facebook will allow you to include smaller groups of people to share with, such as co-workers or friend lists you have created and groups of which you are a member.

You also will be able to change who can see a status update after it's posted by clicking on the drop-down menu next to each item.

Facebook will let people see who tagged them in a photo and easily remove it.
Facebook will let people see who tagged them in a photo and easily remove it. (Click to enlarge.) Facebook

Who hasn't been embarrassed by the unflattering photo that a friend tagged that now appears on your wall? Now you can prevent other peoples' photos of you, or tagged items, from being automatically added to your profile page by using a new optional tool that allows you to approve or reject photos or posts that you are tagged in. To untag yourself from the item you will still have to manually do that from the item itself, however. Also, you can now approve or reject any tag someone else tries to add to your photos and posts, and you can see who tagged you in a photo.

"That was one of the earliest complaints about Facebook's photo tagging system when it rolled out years ago," said Newland. "Facebook has had some controls around per-post for a while now, but it sounds like these are going to be much more granular and more universally provided for content, not just update statuses."

You also will be able to tag people who aren't Facebook friends. And if you are tagged by a stranger it won't appear on your profile page unless you review and approve it first.

In addition, Facebook has added a button to the top of your profile page that lets you "View Profile as" to see how the page looks to others. And the site is making options for removing tags or content more clear. They include removing the item from your profile page, removing just the tag, messaging the photo owner or tagger and requesting that the content be taken down altogether.

Finally, the company is making some changes to the ability for people to specify location. It is phasing out the mobile-only Places feature, but people will be able to add a location to any content, regardless of whether they are on a smartphone or laptop.

More details about the privacy changes are on this Facebook blog post.

Updated 1:03 p.m. PT with EFF comment and 12:20 p.m. PT with details and a comment from the Center for Democracy and Technology.