Facebook changes give users more privacy controls

December 9, 2009 1:41:19 PM PST
Facebook is changing its privacy settings to give users more control over who sees the information they post on their personal pages.

Beginning Wednesday, the networking Web site is taking the rare step of requiring its more than 350 million users to review and update their privacy settings.

The new controls are designed to simplify the cumbersome privacy controls that have confounded many users. Facebook hopes the changes make people comfortable sharing even more information.

Facebook said the changes are based on user feedback -- though it remains to be seen whether the shift will mean fewer surprises for people who have unintentionally shared party photos with their bosses.

As part of the changes, Facebook users will be able to select a privacy setting for each piece of content, such as photos or updates, that they share on the site -- as they share it. The choices are "friends" only, "friends of friends" or "everyone," which means not just Facebook users but everyone on the Internet. (The exception: Minors won't be able to share their content with everyone. For people under 18, the "everyone" setting will send information to "friends of friends.")

There is also an option to customize groups of friends -- such as "college buddies" -- for certain kinds of updates.

Jules Polonetsky, co-chairman and director at the Future of Privacy Forum think tank in Washington, praised how the process resembles the way people decide what to share in their day-to-day lives. He said putting the controls "when you need it, right there, is far better than putting it in a `privacy' or `help' location" somewhere on the site.

Facebook said that until now only 15 percent to 20 percent of its users have customized their privacy settings.

Now Facebook will be asking users to review and alter their settings through a tool that explains the changes. People will be able to keep their old settings or take recommendations from Facebook that are largely based on how they have configured their information.

As promised, Facebook is also getting rid of its geographic networks, because many of them -- take "New York" or "Australia" -- have gotten too big. There had been 5.7 million people in the London network, for example.

If users were previously part of such a geographic network, this location will now be listed in their profiles under "current city."

Other networks, for schools and workplaces, are staying. The changes have no effect on advertising on the site, said Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications and public policy at Facebook.

But he added that by giving users such granular control over the content they share, Facebook is encouraging more sharing and a greater connection to the site.

"If users feel more confident with our service, they will use our service more," he said. "And the more they use our services the more benefits we derive."


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