Facebook Rolls Out New Privacy Settings

Back on May 26, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg came forward with an announcementthat there would be new privacy settings rolled out across FB.  This announcement was mainly in response to the growing discontent amoungst the user community over changes made to Facebook’s privacy policy. 

Well, I say “user community”, but realistically the tempest in a teapot seemed to be spawned more from some rather high-profile people in the tech community coming forward and raising concerns which were then picked up by the mainstream press.  No one should ever confuse what the mainstream press considers important with what the general public actually believes.

A prime example came from Leo Laporte, a podcaster who’s online network TwiT.tv is one of the most popular and extensive new media empires around.  Leo made a grand display of deleting his Facebook account live on “This Week in Google“. 

Personally, my issue was not with Facebook’s changing privacy policy, but the fact that the settings were just too confusing to figure out.  Now, I am a fairly tech-savy guy, so for me to admit confusion over something tech-related means one of two things:  1)  I’m just getting old. or 2) The interface was actually too confusing.  If, someone like me who lives and breaths computers for the vast majority of the day, cannot understand what is going on, what is Joe Q. Public’s chances or, more accurately, Joe Q. Public’s grandmother’s chances?

So, as a techno geek, I have no problem admitting that I was eagerly anticipating these new privacy controls and what they would mean both to me and to the more casual Facebook user.  Well, on June 1 I finally saw the notice that the new controls had been rolled out to my account and I was ready for the playing to begin!

The New Privacy Controls Announcement

OK, naturally the first thing I do is click on “Learn More”.  That pops up the “Controlling How You Share” screen.  The first sentence says it all:  “Facebook is about sharing.”  Let’s face it, if no one shared anything then Facebook would be a pretty boring place to be.  Heck, as it is it seems only a small number of the people who use it actually share anything on a regular basis, most of the people on my friends list are never heard from at all.

Facebook Is About Sharing

So, what about the improved simplicity we have been promised?  I’m a little nervous at first because the “Controlling How You Share” goes on for five pages!  I read it all because I knew I was going to be writing this, but I can imagine for most people it’s like reading the EULA — just tell me where to click to get past this thing!

A second glance and things look pretty good.  Facebook offers three simple “buckets” where you can group the people you share with:  Friends, Friends of Friends, and Everyone.  With a single click you can now use Facebook’s recommended settings and set things all at once using these broad strokes as guidelines.  Nice touch, much easier than before.

Simple One-Click Settings in Easy to Understand Language

OK, let’s start in Section 1 — Basic Directory Information.  For the first time in this process some alarm bells go off for me:  “…some basic information is open to everyone.”  Hmm, no mention of what exactly that is or if there is any way to change it.  When you are dealing with the Internet, “everyone” covers a LOT of territory. 

Basic Directory Information

Let’s see what Facebook has in store for us.  Let’s dive into the “View Settings” link, shall we?

Basic Directory Information Settings

Now, we all need to keep in mind here that I have modified my privacy settings in the past, so I can’t be completely clear as to what the defaults are for brand new accounts.  However, the format is simple and easy to understand.  Above you can see the settings I currently run with.  Things that let people connect with me such as searching for me, sending me messages and Friend requests I think need to be open to Everyone.  Other things I prefer to wait until you are in my social media circle before I let you view them, with the exception of my current city and hometown.  That sort of information is already available on my personal website, so letting Facebook share it with Friends of Friends seems harmless enough.

So, now moving on to the “Sharing on Facebook” section.  The first thing that catches my eye here is that all of the custom settings I have put into place have remained intact:

My Customized Settings Remain Untouched

As you can see, I keep things fairly close to the vest on Facebook until I connect with you as a Friend — at that point all of my information is there for you to see.  This is one of the big reasons why I am careful about who I add as Friends — Facebook is only for people who know me, or used to know me.  The content I produce for general consumption is what I use Twitter and the like for.

Let’s take a quick glance at each of the three simple preset buckets Facebook offers us before we see what they consider to be Recommended.

The “Everyone” Settings

Well, no surprise there.  If you choose to share with everyone they get everything.  If you actually populate things like phone numbers and email addresses in Facebook (I know I do!) then this is a scary place to be living.

Friends of Friends Settings

This is interesting.  After seeing the Everyone settings you would expect that all the dots would fall down the middle of the chart, but this isn’t the case.  Apparently Facebook believes that even if you want to share with Friends of Friends there are some things you should keep more private, such as Contact Information and Birthday.  I know many people don’t trust Facebook, but this shows to me that there is at least some willingness to help you protect your information.

Friends Only

Ah ha!  Success!  A single click quickly matches your settings to what I was originally using.  The only difference here is that when you use the Facebook defaults, you get an additional option:  “Let friends of people tagged in my photos and posts see them.”  I don’t seem to get that option when using the Custom settings. 

And, finally, the big one!  Recommended.  What does Facebook think I should be sharing with people?

Facebook’s Recommended Sharing Settings

This is a pretty good mix of public and private.  I think the first setting “My status, photos and posts” tells us a lot though.  Over the years Facebook has been accused of having “Twitter envy” and I think this shows it to be true.  Not only was the News Feed a direct shot across the bow of Twitter, this is another attempt at the same sort of thing.  Facebook wants your status, posts and pictures to be public.  I suppose there is a lot of value in being able to mine that real-time data stream, and that is something Facebook could really monetize.  As I said before, I’ll use Twitter for status updates or posts I want to put out for public consumption, and Flickr is my home for public pictures.  This doesn’t jive with what I signed up for when I created my Facebook account.

Family and Relationships is another one I don’t like being totally public.  This is like opening my Friend List up to people who aren’t already on it.  I like to be in control of my own data, and thus publishing my relationship with other people means, in my mind, I am violating their ability to control what they share.

Everything else I am OK with.  I think those default settings mesh with what the non-tech savy Facebook user would expect to happen with his/her data.  I still choose to keep my settings much tighter than what Facebook recommends, but that is because I have other sites for my web presence, I am not at the mercy of Facebook.  One of the reasons I started this website is so I can have complete control over what I choose to post.  Facebook may not like having people link to videos of people deleting their Facebook accounts and delete those posts (calling them spam, no less!), but what I put here is under my control as long as I do it within the letter of the law.

Bottom line is this:  Never put anything anywhere on the Internet if you are not prepared for it to leak into the public.  Whether you believe Facebook will go and change your settings to make you unwillingly leak your personal data or you have a falling out with a friend and she posts all sorts of bad pictures of you, or your account is compromised by a hacker, it’s only a matter of time.  Be aware and take steps to protect yourself and keep yourself comfortable. 

It was never my intent to dive deep into the customized settings available in Facebook.  I’m also avoiding the dreaded “instant personalization” that has many people creeped out.  Those things are well beyond the scope of what I have the time to write.  I highly recommend checking out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s article on “How to Get More Privacy From Facebook’s New Privacy Controls” article for that level of detail.


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