Facebook tightening privacy controls

28 Aug 2009

Facebook has announced that it will be making a series of improvements to its privacy policy, following a year-long investigation by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada into the social networking site’s privacy controls and practices.

Included in the changes will be new notifications, additions to the site’s privacy policy, and technical changes to give users greater control over the information they provide to third-party applications.

Last month, Canadian privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart issued a report on the investigation into Facebook, which had been prompted by a complaint from the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.

According to the commissioner’s office, despite Facebook taking steps to resolve privacy concerns, Stoddart remained dissatisfied by its response at the end of the investigation. She is reported to have been particularly concerned about the risks posed by the over-sharing of personal information with third-party developers of Facebook applications, such as games and quizzes.

Facebook was subsequently given 30 days to respond to the report and explain to how it would address the outstanding concerns. Following a review of Facebook’s formal response and discussions with company officials, Stoddart is now satisfied the company is on course to address the privacy gaps on its site.

“These changes mean that the privacy of 200 million Facebook users in Canada and around the world will be far better protected,” said Stoddart. “This is extremely important. People will be able to enjoy the benefits of social networking without giving up control of their personal information. We’re very pleased Facebook has been responsive to our recommendations.”

“Facebook is promising to make significant technological changes to address the issue we felt was the biggest risk for users – the relatively free flow of personal information to more than one million application developers around the world,” said assistant commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who led the investigation. “Application developers have had virtually unrestricted access to Facebook users’ personal information. The changes Facebook plans to introduce will allow users to control the types of personal information that applications can access.”

Elliot Shrage, vice-president of global communications and public policy at Facebook, said that productive and constructive dialogue with the commissioner’s office had given the company an opportunity to improve its policies and practices in a way that would provide greater transparency and control for users.

“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,” he said.

Specific changes include updating the privacy policy to better describe a number of practices; encouraging users to review their privacy settings to ensure the defaults and selections reflect the user’s preferences; and, increasing the understanding and control users have over the information accessed by third-party applications.

According to Facebook, work will begin on these planned changes immediately and the entire process will take approximately 12 months.

“We strongly believe that the changes to the permission model for third-party applications will give users more confidence in Platform and will, thus, help ensure the long-term health and vitality of the ecosystem that has grown around Platform,” said Ethan Beard, director of Platform product marketing at Facebook. “We will be communicating regularly with developers about the changes and we’re going to take our time to make sure the outcome is something users understand and that developers have ample time and notice to adapt.”

By Grainne Rothery