Facebook Finally Simplifies Privacy

Google+ threat may have prompted more user controls

Did competition nudge Facebook to finally make the privacy changes users have been asking for?

After years of skirmishes with users and watchdog groups, Facebook announced a raft of changes Tuesday that make it easier for users to control who can see the content they post online.

The changes, which give Facebook sharing a finer level of granularity, make the social networking site more like Google +, which lets users share content with different “Circles” of online contacts.

But despite the close timing to the launch of Google + this summer, Facebook said they’ve been working on the changes long before the introduction of Google’s social networking site.

“We’ve been working on these updates for over six months,” said Facebook product manager Kate O’Neill. “I just really wish we could work that fast. This is really about listening to people on Facebook and trying to respond to the things that they’ve asked for to make their experiences even better.”

Privacy experts say the changes could also have been about something else: The realization that if Facebook didn’t respond to user concerns about privacy someone else would.

“I don’t think Facebook is the kind of company that is resting on its laurels,” said Chris Conley, Technology and Civil Liberties Fellow for the ACLU of Northern California. “They’re aware that the technology industry changes very quickly and if they want to retain their users and continue to be the dominant social network, they need to continue to improve and engage with users and address the concerns that users bring up.”

Whether or not Facebook knew that Google+ was on its way, he said, they knew there was going to be competition.

“They certainly know what happened to MySpace,” Conley said. 

And the way to retain—and attract—users he added, is to respond to their concerns, in order to build up user trust.

While the changes announced Tuesday don’t address all of the issues Facebook has been criticized for in the past (such as sharing data with third-party applications), Conley said, “This is definitely progress in the right direction.”

Industry observers also say the changes are likely an outcome of the pressure levied by regulators and privacy advocates. Being proactive with privacy changes now makes it less likely that Facebook will be forced to make changes later.

“I think that Facebook has learned the hard way that privacy isn’t something you can blow off,” said Erica Newland, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology. “We think that these changes look really good… and make controlling who can see what information much more intuitive.”

Facebook said the changes will start rolling out to a small group of users Thursday, and then will scale up the coming weeks across all platforms (including mobile).

“What we are seeing is a recognition from Facebook that privacy is a value-add to users,” said Newland. “It’s a point that social networks have to distinguish themselves and keep attracting users.”