Facebook has improved its privacy controls. Should we trust it not to screw up again?

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May 27 2010 11:37 AM

Friends Again

Facebook has improved its privacy controls. Should we trust it not to screw up again?

Facebook's privacy settings. Click image to expand.
Facebook's new privacy settings page

Two weeks ago, I predicted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would respond to the latest outcry over privacy by doing what he's always done: writing a public letter assuring us that Facebook had heard our cries, then unveiling a few new updates to address our concerns. On Monday, Zuckerberg wrote just such a public letter. And at a press conference on Wednesday, he unveiled a few new updates. Whatever else you think about Facebook, at least it's predictable.

The updates are pretty much in line what we'd all been expecting, too. In the past, Facebook asked us to tinker with dozens of different buttons across several different pages to manage our privacy. Now setting your privacy rules is much, much easier.

The new privacy page will roll out to users over the next couple of weeks, but Facebook gave tech journalists early access. I found the new settings drop-dead simple to use, but simplicity isn't enough. For Facebook's new privacy rollout to be successful, the company needs to educate its users about the changes. Given Facebook's track record on that, it would be foolish to guess that everything will go smoothly from now on.

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The privacy page is dominated by three big master switches. The buttons are marked "Everyone," "Friends of Friends," and "Friends." Pressing one of those will decide most of your Facebook privacy settings in one go.

Yes, most, but not all. The master switches take care of privacy for the stuff you post on Facebook—status updates, photos, your bio, etc.—but they don't affect what Facebook calls your "directory information," which includes rules about whether people can search for you, send you friend requests, or see your list of friends. For that, you'll need to go to another part of the privacy page. The master switches also don't affect what third-party applications can do on your profile—for that there's yet another setting on another part of the page.

Does this sound confusing? It isn't, actually. It took me just a couple of minutes to find most sections of the page, and the master switches do take care of the most pressing criticism that the site has faced—that confusing settings were causing people to inadvertently share too much with everyone on the Internet. Now there's little chance of that. If you choose the "Friends" setting, everything you post on the site (including all the stuff you've posted in the past) will be viewable only by people you've selected to be in your network. And Facebook will still allow you to customize individual settings— you can start with the Friends master setting and then go deeper into the privacy options to allow your status updates to be available to friends of friends. You'll also still be able to set up lists of different kinds of friends—people at work, family, etc.—and assign different settings to each list. The important thing, though, is you won't have to tinker with those deeper sharing settings if you don't want to or don't know how.

Slate V: Are you sure you want to quit Facebook?

You may find it hard to believe that Facebook has suddenly found the magic bullet for managing your privacy. Sure, these changes may look good now, but Facebook seems to redesign the site every six months. Shouldn't we assume that privacy, like everything else on Facebook, will become unwieldy once more?

This is where you simply have to decide whether to trust Facebook. Zuckerberg now promises that the master privacy setting you select will now determine how the site will handle your account the next time—and every other time—it decides to make a change.

Think of this as Facebook's Ron Popeil promise: "You can set it, and forget it!" Facebook has long been rumored to be working on a Foursquare-like system to let users broadcast their geographical location. When Facebook has rolled out this kind of thing in the past, the company has determined everyone's default privacy setting. Now, Zuckerberg says, the default setting for the location system and any other innovations Facebook rolls out will be determined by whichever master switch you'd previously flipped. If Facebook sticks to this pledge, it could earn back its critics' trust. I'll believe it when I see it.

There are a few other changes: Facebook will now allow you to set who can see your friends and the pages you've "liked"; in the past, you had no choice but to make those fields public. And Facebook has made it easier to turn off "instant personalization," the service that lets people share their information with three Web sites—Yelp, Pandora, and Microsoft Docs. That system is still "opt-out"—by default, it's turned on for everyone, and you have to take some action to turn it off—but now you'll be able to turn it off in one click rather than half a dozen.

People at Facebook admit they rushed to institute many of these changes in response to a storm they didn't anticipate. "It's been a pretty intense few weeks for us," Zuckerberg said at the press conference. Later I spoke to Bret Taylor, Facebook's director of product, who described a round-the-clock process of devising and testing the new settings system. "It was an interesting design challenge," Taylor said. "We spent a lot of time doing mock-ups, and then we would bring users in and have them use it and ask them questions about their understanding of it. We went through a lot of iterations—that was what we did almost full time over the past couple weeks."

I'm happy Facebook did all this. But while the changes are likely to stem the current outcry, I doubt that this is the end of our stormy relationship with Facebook. We're likely to see the same movie play out again and again: Six months or a year from now, the media, tech bloggers, and lawmakers will start yelling about the site once more. Zuckerberg, again, will be forced to respond. You watch.

Why? Because Facebook has become more deeply intertwined with our daily lives than just about any other recent tech innovation. You may spend more time on Google, spend more money on Amazon, and have more fun at YouTube, but none of those sites are about your real life or your friends, family, and co-workers. Facebook is trying to do something much more difficult than other tech firms: It's trying to build a business based on people's real identities—out of information that we all feel we have the right to control. Facebook is doing this in order to make a whole lot of money, surely, but also because its executives genuinely believe that the Web and the world will be much more pleasant if more people connect with one another.

Here's the crazy thing: We agree with them. For all the criticism in the media and tech circles, we've continued to use Facebook just as much as before. The company is constantly examining usage data—overall traffic, the number of times people log in, the frequency with which people deactivate or delete their profiles, the rate at which new people join the site, users' willingness to post new stuff, and much more. According to both Zuckerberg and Taylor, there was no evidence of a mass defection in any of those metrics.

Facebook did notice a decline in its Net Promoter score, which measures how often people are recommending the site to their friends. But when executives looked in to the decline, it turned out to be unrelated to privacy. "It was entirely correlated with our change to make posts from games less prominent in the newsfeed," Taylor said. "People were upset because they weren't updating their farm in FarmVille or updating their island in Happy Island as regularly because those stories were less prominent."

If users weren't actually changing their behavior in response to fears over privacy, why the huge outcry? The main problem is that Facebook leaps before looking—it's fond of making changes to the site but doesn't stop to consider the impact of those changes until lots of people start screaming. Nothing that Facebook said or unveiled this week suggests it has solved this fundamental problem. Our personal information is a touchy subject. And I'm not sure we can have this conversation without some amount of yelling.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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