MySpace Issues Facebook Privacy Challenge, but Will It Win Users?

MySpace announced this week it was changing its privacy settings in response to the controversy surrounding user data on social networks. Facebook, MySpace's main rival, has been at the center of criticism, but whether the move will bring users back to MySpace remains to be seen.

MySpace is taking advantage of anger about Facebook's privacy controls to win over users with simplified controls, but it remains to be seen whether it will help the site gain back market share.

On Monday, MySpace announced it will give users the option of choosing one privacy setting for all the information in their profile in the coming weeks. In the past, MySpace users have to set separate privacy settings for each section of their profile. Under the new policy, the users could make the information available to friends only, anyone on MySpace or anyone 18 or older. Those already using the friends-only option on portion of their profile will have that setting become the default for all their information.

"The last few weeks have been fraught with discussion around user privacy on social networks...While we've had these plans in the works for some time, given the recent outcry over privacy concerns in the media, we felt it was important to unveil those plans to our users now," blogged Mike Jones, co-president of MySpace. "We believe users want a simpler way to control their privacy."

The change follows weeks of controversy surrounding Facebook privacy, which have included numerous calls for the Federal Trade Commission to take action. Last month, the company introduced plug-ins and APIs (application programming interfaces) designed to allow third-party sites to gain access to information published on the site.

Once the most popular social networking site, MySpace has been overtaken by Facebook in terms of the number of users. During one week in March, Facebook was the No. 1 visited site on the Web. However, the backlash regarding privacy on Facebook has led to the creation of sites such as On the other hand, there is evidence that many people do not take advantage of the privacy controls Facebook offers which could mean many users either do not understand the controls or are unconcerned.

MySpace, Facebook and other social networks need to find a way to balance their overall mission - to promote social interaction - with the requirements of privacy, experts said.

"Some people may have a private gathering in someone's home - that doesn't mean they're inviting everyone who happens to be friends of friends who are invited," said, Jeremy Mishkin, a partner and Internet privacy expert at the law firm Montgomery McCracken in Philadelphia. "We can be social and still keep things private, and a social network can make that happen."

An ideal social network should provide a flexible system that people can be as social as they want, but only in the manners that they want, Forrester Research analyst Chenxi Wang told eWEEK.

"E.g., if I don't want to share my information with a third-party site, I shouldn't have to do that by default," she said. "But if I elect to do so, believing that kind of information sharing enriches my social network experiences, then by all means I should be able to do that."