Facebook to ask 350 million users to manage their privacy

9 Dec 2009

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Facebook said today it is calling on its more than 350 million users to review and update their privacy settings and it will roll out new tools to give users better control over their information and the audiences they want to reach.

“Facebook is transforming the world’s ability to control its information online by empowering more than 350 million people to personalise the audience for each piece of content they share,” said Elliot Schrage, vice-president of communications, public policy and marketing.

“We’ve always designed Facebook to enable people to control what information they share with whom — it’s the reason our service continues to attract such a broad and diverse group of users from around the world. We’re proud of the latest evolution we’re announcing today and we will continue to innovate to serve users’ changing needs.”

User demand

The company says the changes are the result of requests from both users and experts. Different versions of these suggestions were developed and tested extensively since the beginning of this year.

Facebook says that users from all over the world have requested the ability to dynamically control who sees each individual piece of content.

Facebook’s new Publisher Privacy Control — the main place to add content such as photos and status updates — provides this function and is rolling out to users today. This feature will enable people to easily select a privacy setting for every post they make at the time they create it.

For example, a person may want to share some posts with everyone, such as her opinion on a new movie. Other times, that same person may want to share more personal updates, like her new phone number or a photo of her children, with a narrower community, such as her Friends or members of Friend Lists she has created.

Changes

Facebook’s current privacy model revolves around “networks” — communities for schools, companies or regions.

However, some of the regional networks, like Australia and Turkey, now have millions of members, which is why Facebook is moving toward a more personalised model of control. Regional networks will be removed and replaced with four basic control settings — Friends, Friends of Friends, Everyone and Customised — that are simpler and apply uniformly to all users worldwide.

Many users have expressed that the current set of privacy choices are confusing or overwhelming. In response, the Privacy Settings page has been completely redesigned with a goal of making the controls easy, intuitive and accessible.

Based on user feedback, Facebook has consolidated some settings and grouped them in ways that are more logical and straight forward.

New Transition Tool

Starting today, Facebook will also take the unprecedented step of presenting users with a Transition Tool — a transparent process requiring people to review and update their privacy settings.

This tool will start with a message that explains the changes and will then let users update their settings. Users will be presented with two options: preserving their old settings or accepting recommendations from Facebook.

Potentially sensitive information, like phone numbers, is assigned a more restrictive recommendation. Facebook will suggest that users retain settings they have previously configured, but if users have not changed their settings in the past, Facebook’s recommendations will be pre-selected. Users can change any of the selections and they must confirm all selections before they take effect.

Once users have updated their settings, they will be shown a confirmation page that will let them review their selections again. The confirmation page also provides a link to the full Privacy Settings page where users can modify settings further as they see fit. Of course, users will be also able to change their settings whenever they want.

More information

As users move through the Transition Tool, they’ll be presented with an opportunity to “Learn More.” Through this link, they’ll reach Facebook’s new Privacy Centre, a comprehensive guide that helps users understand and control how they share information.

The Privacy Centre explains Facebook’s principles of user control and related features. It also offers links to other privacy-related material on and off Facebook. Even after a user has completed the Transition Tool, the Privacy Centre will always remain available from links throughout the site. 

In addition to the Privacy Centre, Facebook is paying special attention to educating new users. New users will be encouraged to learn more about privacy once they complete the registration process and will have the opportunity to view a New User Guide, which will include a section about privacy and link to the new Privacy Centre.

New users will also receive specific privacy education messages within important Facebook pages.

For first-timers

Finally, the first-time users who seek to share content using the new Publisher Privacy Control will be shown a message that indicates who will see their post; it will also offer a link to additional information.

“One of our primary goals is to consistently improve Facebook and expand what our users can do through the site, and that includes providing them with new tools to help control their information,” said Chris Cox, vice-president of product management.

“The features we’re announcing today aren’t the end point, but are simply the latest step in our iterative process. Great suggestions helped us get here, and we look forward to the feedback that will help us develop the next innovation in privacy and user control,” Cox said.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Facebook has revamped its user privacy controls.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com