Facebook Privacy Record May Get Boost from Changes

Privacy advocates and analysts gave mixed - but often largely positive - reactions to Facebook's new user controls.

When it comes to user privacy, this past year has been a long one for Facebook.

There have been calls for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the site, followed by significant changes to the social network's privacy controls. Oct. 6, the company added yet another layer to those controls, which some are counting as evidence the company's privacy record is improving.

"The Facebook that announced Facebook Places and Groups seems a more seasoned and trustworthy organization than the Facebook that announced Beacon and Instant Personalization," blogged Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Gone is the talk (or implication) that privacy is no longer a social norm, and instead we now see a company that recognizes it cannot afford to push the envelope too far."

The latest changes include the ability for users to create Groups of Facebook friends to share information from the Facebook homepage. The groups are closed by default, but the creator can choose to make it open, closed or secret. Members of the group will be able to see the information of all members of the group, such as their name and content posted in the group. If the group is "closed," non-members will only be able to see the names of the group's members but not any content. If it is "secret," non-members can't see anything about the group, including its name.

The "open" setting allows non-members to see the group's name, the names of individual members as well as content. The company also gave users the power to download their own Facebook profile in a Zip file.

In addition, the site added a new dashboard to display the permissions users granted to Facebook applications. On the dashboard, users can see when the applications last accessed their data as well as what data was accessed. The settings also allow users to remove optional permissions for an application, or remove it completely.

"We think that this is an important step forward in terms of providing more transparency to users about where their Facebook data is going and who's using it," blogged Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "However, we hope that Facebook will soon take a few steps farther, both by providing a more complete picture of how much information is going to the apps that you install, and also by providing information about how much information is going to the apps that your friends have installed."

Among the eight recommendations Opsahl suggested was that Facebook create an anonymous setting for the Groups feature to protect users' identities from other group members.

"There are many people, such as violence survivors or HIV positive individuals or religious groups, who may want to have a group discussion without revealing their identities," he blogged. "Facebook should enhance the Groups feature by allowing for the creation of groups where the membership list is secret from members (i.e. just available to the group's administrators, if anyone), and where group members can interact using pseudonyms rather than their real names."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, took a much bleaker view of Facebook's moves.

"Facebook has perfected the art of the digital data collection cover-up," he said. "Under the guise of claiming its new products are privacy tools, they have really expanded what information they can obtain from their users to help their ad business."

Ray blogged that while some may quibble about certain default settings, such as Groups being closed by default instead of secret, "the quibbles are just that-quibbles."

"Facebook is no longer deploying each new feature with the assumption users want to share everything with everyone, and in fact all three of [Oct. 6's] announcements do the opposite-they create the means to limit and control one's social sharing," he wrote.