Facebook privacy revamp draws fire

Posted at 12/10/2009 12:24 PM | Updated as of 12/10/2009 9:26 PM

SAN FRANCISCO – Facebook, the world's No.1 Internet social network, took a step toward opening up parts of its site to outsiders on Wednesday by introducing a broad revision of its users' privacy settings.

But Facebook's implementation of the new settings drew quick criticisms from privacy advocates who claimed the changes were pushing Facebook's 350 million-plus users to expose more of their personal information.

"Facebook is nudging the settings toward the 'disclose everything' position. That's not fair from the privacy perspective," said Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Rotenberg said his organization was evaluating Facebook's new privacy changes to see if they were deceptive.

"Let me put it this way, right now we're taking a lot of screenshots (of Facebook)," Rotenberg said, when asked if his group might file a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The move comes as Internet search engines such as Google Inc and Microsoft Corp are increasingly interested in incorporating the growing trove of user-generated content from social media websites into their search results and as Facebook faces competition from rival services such as Twitter, in which all information is viewable to the public.

The new privacy features, which Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg mentioned were coming in a blog post last week, will make it easier for a Facebook user to limit certain messages to a subset of their friends, such as family members but not work colleagues.

For the first time, all of Facebook's users will also now have the ability to broadcast their musings, photographs, videos and other personal information to all of Facebook's 350 million members and even beyond the borders of Facebook so they are viewable across the broader Web. Facebook began testing the public message feature with a limited group of users during the summer.

Facebook users were greeted with a message Wednesday presenting them with new options to customize privacy settings and directing them to a new, simplified overview page of all their personal privacy settings.

Privacy advocates took issue with the fact that Facebook is now requiring that certain personal information, such as a person's gender and the city they reside in, be viewable to the everyone, instead of to just Facebook users of their choice.

Facebook's recommendation that users elect to have their messages viewable by everyone -- unless they specifically chose to retain their "old settings" -- was also criticized.

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said users could simply opt to leave the city and gender fields blank if they did not want the information seen by their non-friends on Facebook. And he noted that the new privacy features makes it easy for users restrict who sees a particular message every time they write a new post, thus making the recommended default setting less relevant.

"Any suggestion that we're trying to trick them into something would work against any goal that we have," said Schnitt.

He said that Facebook was recommending that posts be viewable to everyone because such sharing of information is consistent with "the way the world is moving."

In October, Microsoft announced plans to incorporate Facebook messages flagged for the general public into its search engine results, although the service is not yet available.

Google recently announced plans to incorporate certain Facebook data in its new real time search product, but the data will be limited to the special public profile Facebook pages created by celebrities and companies.

Facebook said the changes will not, in any way, alter the company's policies governing the kind of user information that is shared with advertisers.

Earlier this year, Canada's privacy commissioner said Facebook lacked certain safeguards to prevent unauthorized access of users' personal information by third-party developers such as game and quiz makers. Facebook addressed the concerns in August.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit focused on Internet rights, posted a lengthy evaluation of Facebook's privacy changes on Wednesday, praising some, but finding fault with others.

"These new 'privacy' changes are clearly intended to push Facebook users to publicly share even more information than before. Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data," the EFF statement said.