Facebook users are about to see an unfamiliar screen when they sign on to the service--a request to configure their privacy preferences. But it's not really a request. It's a requirement.
"As far as we know, it's the first time in the history of the Internet," said Facebook spokesman Simon Axten, "that so many people have been required to make affirmative decisions about their privacy."
The company on Wednesday provided details of the changes that CEO Mark Zuckerberg blogged about last week. These include eliminating regional networks and giving users more granular control over who can see individual pieces of content while making some basic profile information available to everyone. Also, Facebook is simplifying what this blogger and others have criticized as overly complex privacy controls, but it is also requiring members to make some information available to the public.
Controversial privacy history
In 2007, Facebook announced its Beacon advertising service, which broadcast member activity on partner sites to their Facebook friends. If you bought a movie ticket on Fandango, for example, all of your Facebook friends would immediately know about it. The Beacon program unleashed a campaign from consumer advocacy groups including MoveOn.org as well as a class action law suit that was settled this September. As part of that settlement, Facebook agreed to shut down Beacon and to donate $9.5 million to an independent foundation to "fund projects and initiatives that promote the cause of online privacy, safety, and security."
In February of this year, Facebook found itself at the center of another privacy storm after it announced a change in its policy that would give the company seemingly perpetual control over user-supplied content. That prompted the Electronic Privacy Information Center to threaten filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and also led to the formation of a Facebook group called People Against the new Terms of Service that attracted nearly 150,000 members protesting the changes. The uproar caused the company to rescind those changes and resulted in CEO Mark Zuckerberg holding a press conference where he announced that the company would create "a new approach to site governance" so that its decisionmaking would be more transparent.
Mandatory privacy settings
All users will soon be confronted with a "privacy announcement" informing them that they must configure their settings. Initially, you will be able to "skip for now" but you will later be required to go through the steps in order to continue using the service, according to Axten.
To encourage people to share information, Facebook has set the default to "everyone," but you can later go back to set more restrictive settings. You can also keep your old settings. If you're not sure what they are, you can display them by hovering over the radio button.
In the final step, Facebook displays your settings and gives you a chance to change them. At this point or at any time in the future you will be able to adjust any of your settings
The Facebook settings will be based on four basic levels: friends, friends of friends, everyone, and customize. If you belong to a network, you will also have the setting friends and networks. As before, you will also be able to customize settings to include or exclude specific friends or groups of friends.
Some information must be publicly available
Some information--including name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks you belong to, friend lists, and pages you're a fan of--will be available to everyone. The only way to keep that information from the general public is to not include it as part of your Facebook profile. Users also have the ability to limit what can be found via a search on Facebook and what information Facebook will make available to search engines like Google and Bing.
According to Axten, that information is being made publicly available to make it easier to find people using Facebook search, especially people with common names. If you locate a "John Smith" in a Facebook search, seeing his picture and knowing where he lives can make it easier to pinpoint the right person. Though not mandatory, Facebook, according to a spokesperson, is encouraging people to make other information public such as where they went to school or where they work. However Axten added that if a user had previously configured their privacy settings, they should keep what they already have.
While adults have the option of making content available to everyone, the maximum exposure available to users under 18 will be friends of friends or school networks.
Control over who gets to see your posts
The most important change is that you will now be able to specify who can see each piece of your content including status updates, photos, and videos. Each time you add content, you'll be able to determine whether it can be seen by everyone, friends and network, friends of friends, only friends, or a custom setting. Customized settings allow you to include or exclude individual people or lists of people. For example, one could share last night's exploits with his fraternity brothers but not with his fellow church members or office mates. The list feature, which has long been available, allows you to divide your friends into groups. For example, as a journalist, I encourage readers to "friend" me at Facebook.com/larrymagid, but I also maintain a list of "real world friends."
Third-party application settings
As in the past, you will have some control over the information that can be seen by operators of third-party Facebook applications. Facebook has added the ability to fully block an application from accessing any information but, in most cases, that will disable the application.
Facebook's Axten said that application developers will have access to all publicly available information, but can only access other information with the user's permission. Applications are also required to only access user information that is essential for them to run. The company, said Axten, has an enforcement squad to ensure compliance.
Facebook is also launching a new Privacy Center that will offer "a comprehensive guide that helps users understand and control how they share information."
Disclosure: Facebook is one of several companies that provides support to ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization I help run.