Facebook to Give Users “An Easy Way to Turn Off All Third-Party Services”

In an otherwise bland response to the company’s privacy critics, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberk’s op-ed in The Washington Post yesterday briefly mentioned a change that could significantly impact users and anyone building on the platform.

Beyond repeating that Facebook will soon launch simpler privacy settings (which are due as soon as tomorrow), he wrote that “we will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services.”

That’s just one sentence, so we don’t know exactly how the feature will work. But Facebook has until now required users to go through more complex, granular processes to either limit or uninstall apps that they’ve previously used. It has provided limited means for users to preclude themselves from having to hear about apps that they have not added.

The coming change could mean that there will soon be a way to immediately uninstall every third-party application that users have ever added, including any site that users have somehow connected with. That’s the most drastic scenario, and the phrasing is unclear so we don’t know that it is the case. Facebook could provide other alternatives, like a way for users to limit access to how any developer can communicate with them or access their data, that won’t amount to completely uninstalling the app. It might also have a setting that prevents users from, say, receiving invites to an app from any friend.

Still, we expect the current options to continue to exist in some form, as they provide more flexibility to users.

People have so far only had the option to delete previously-added apps one by one. This interface is tedious for anyone who has added a lot of apps, who decides they want to remove a lot of them. But it also lets them decide exactly what apps to keep or not.

Facebook has also provided some general application privacy settings. You can limit what information you share about yourself with third parties, or what information your friends share about you with third parties. You can also “block individual applications from accessing your information and contacting you,”  block “application invites from specific friends,” and limit which of your friends and networks can see your engagement with applications within the Apps and Games Dashboards.

There’s also a setting where you can turn off Facebook’s new Instant Personalization product — which otherwise allows Facebook to share some user data that it has previously made public with third parties.

All of these settings require a lot of work to use, which is the cost Facebook incurs by offering granular controls to users.

The point of the change that anyone who decides they are sick of Facebook apps and web sites that use their Facebook data will somehow be able to cut off all of these parties with a click of a button. This is a better user experience for anyone who wants to control their privacy settings without spending a lot of time on the interface.

But, all developers could be affected, in the sense that they could lose access to users who may actually want their apps. Users who make the decision to turn off all third-party access may do so simply because they dislike a particular app, and are reacting strongly to that feeling. Maybe they decide they hate all social games, after getting their 200th FarmVille friend request from a large group of old friends obsessed with the game? Or maybe they’re confused by Instant Personalization, and they decide to prevent further confusion about how their data is being shared by cutting off all future access to third parties?

Facebook appears to have resisted providing a universal “off” button for third parties because it wanted the default to get users sharing more, and trying more services — sharing and using third-party apps are core parts of the value that Facebook provides to users, after all. This new settings option, in other words, signals a more conservative approach from Facebook, and shows the paradox of its position. It’s potentially sacrificing some of the core value it provides users and developers in exchange for providing users with more control.