Facebook Addresses Openness, Privacy Ahead of Potential Competitors

Facebook addressed two of its deepest, long-standing criticisms today ahead of what may be a tough fight with a forthcoming rival social networking product from Google.

By retooling friend lists and groups to make them simpler and more viral and in letting users download their data, Facebook is heading off criticism about openness and privacy controls, two areas which have given rise to a string of more privacy-focused competitors including Diaspora, The Fridge and Google’s upcoming social network.

While Google’s product hasn’t launched yet, the company has devoted scores of engineers and designers to it in an effort to slow the growth of Facebook’s protected part of the web, which is inaccessible to Google’s search engine.

According to documents released earlier this year, Google’s user experience designers focused on Facebook’s weakness with friend groups. The screenshot, from a report embedded below by Google senior user experience researcher Paul Adams, points out how real-world social networks often break down into independent groups of work, college, family and close friends.

Indeed, for a long time, Facebook’s friend lists interface made it complicated to group different contacts together — only 5 to 10 percent of users bothered to make them, according to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. At the same time, a number of privacy changes over the last year made sharing settings more public by default, attracting criticism from legislators and the mainstream media.

Today, the company revamped Groups and turned them into private sharing spaces where users can write status updates and post photos to specific people.

But in its more people-focused approach to design, it stopped short of making algorithmic suggestions for friend groups.

“Nobody wants to see a list of who they’re closest friends with. When you get these things wrong algorithmically, the costs are catastrophic,” Zuckerberg said.

His comment could have been aimed at the failings of Buzz, the last major social product Google unveiled. Buzz initially made users auto-follow the people they most often e-mailed in Gmail, but it inadvertently paired users with their co-workers, bosses or even abusive ex-husbands.

Groups will help the company reclaim credibility on privacy after a difficult year for the company’s public image on the issue. The Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington D.C.-based privacy watchdog Facebook courted ahead of the launch today, said that Groups are “a revolution in approach for Facebook,” which had “repeatedly used questionable means to encourage users to share more of their information with the general public” over the past year.

The second key product Facebook unveiled today, “Download Your Information,” will allow the company to claim the high ground on “openness” and data portability. While openness and privacy seem contradictory, they can work in tandem if consumers have the ultimate choice over how their data is used. The new product lets users download a copy of all of their information including wall posts and photos and store it locally in a .zip file.

The product may quell some critics, who have long argued that Facebook has been misleading about its openness as a platform. While it temporarily gave third-party developers access to user data and let users take their identities with them across the web through Connect, it didn’t provide pure data portability. Facebook has also stalled on integrating large potential rivals like Twitter and Apple’s music social network Ping, citing performance issues and in Twitter’s case, the lack of a pre-existing business relationship.

But over the past year, the company has relaxed some of its rules, and now is allowing users to keep a complete copy of data they’ve published to the social network.

The product was led by senior open programs manager David Recordon, who famously wrote last year before he joined that Facebook would no longer be a “walled garden.” He argued it would “become the most open social network on the social web” by year-end.

Recommended articles