News Outlets Preserve Privacy by Giving Users Ways to Mute Facebook’s Frictionless Sharing

Several news outlets are testing different interfaces that let their readers opt out of sharing their reading activity to Facebook. Since gaining the ability at last month’s f8, many media sites and apps have begun automatically publishing what their users listen to, read, watch, or do in order to gain new users. Sometimes users don’t want to share this activity, though, and may restrict their own engagement with these apps if not given a way to temporarily opt out of sharing.

Here we’ll look at how privacy and frictionless sharing is handled by The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily, and The Independent. If news outlets can find a successful approach to activity privacy, they may be able to boost referral traffic from Facebook through auto-publishing without causing a chilling effect where users decide not to read articles because they don’t want to share them.

When users first install one of the new Open Graph apps with auto-publishing capabilities, they’re asked for persistent permission to report their activity back to Facebook through a system called “frictionless sharing”. They can set the privacy of their shared content to buckets such as “public”, or choose a specific friend list to share with. In most cases, though, users simply choose the default of “friends only”.

From then on, whenever users engage with the app or Facebook-integrated website, their activity is published to the home page’s Ticker, their profile or profile Timeline, and in some cases the news feed. Typically, there is no way to preemptively hide or opt out of sharing a specific activity, such as listening to an embarrassing song or reading an controversial news article. Users must go to their profile and manually delete the post, but by then some friends may have already seen the activity in the real-time Ticker.

This functionality has raised some privacy concerns, and led advocate groups to submit complaints to government agencies that could hurt Facebook’s image or lead to regulation. More pressing for third-parties such as news outlets, though, is that users might choose not to click on a link to an article because they don’t want to automatically share it with friends. This might be because the content is embarrassing or controversial, or it may be a curation issue where the user doesn’t want to share an article before knowing if it’s something they’d recommend.

While Facebook may develop its own solution to this problem, some third-party developers are taking the initiative and offering their users way to opt out of or retract sharing. Spotify recently began rolling out a software update which includes a private listening mode that can be temporarily enabled while users listen to guilty pleasures or other songs they don’t want to share. Here’s a look at how several major news outlets are approaching privacy and frictionless sharing

The Washington Post displays a “Mark as unread” link at the bottom of its articles that when clicked will retract the activity story published when users open an article from the Ticker and their Timeline. While the link is small, easy to miss, and doesn’t let users preemptively hide sharing, it’s easy to use and a step in the right direction.

London newspaper The Guardian has the most prominent of the privacy controls we’ve seen. At the top of each article is the option to “Remove from Timeline” the stories about reading that article.

The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Social app, which we reviewed in-depth last month, doesn’t actually publish that a user has read a specific article, but only that they are using the app. There’s no way to retract the “Josh Constine is using WSJ.Com on Facebook” story from within the app, though.

Newscorp’s The Daily has the weakest privacy controls of the reader apps we’ve seen. It defaults sharing to public, reports the specific articles users are reading, and does not provide any way to preemptively opt out of or retract sharing,

U.K. newspaper The Independent’s website uses a more sophisticated privacy control. Users can click a login button to authorize the app, and they then see a Recently Read panel on the left side of the site. It defaults to article sharing being on, with a green light to indicate so. A Friend Activity tab shows what articles friends have read, and a Your Activity shows a user’s own reading history and allows them to retract the sharing of past articles.

Users can click the green button to turn sharing off. From then until they turn sharing back on, none of their reading activity will be reported to Facebook. Even if users close their browser and visit The Independent later, sharing will still be off, though it may default back to on if they switch browsers or computers. A “Learn More” link within the widget brings users to an page explaining how it works.

The Independent’s privacy widget is relatively prominent, offers granular control over past activity, and lets users preemptively disable sharing of their reading activity so it never reaches Facebook. The only issue is that users might accidentally leave it in the off position for long periods of time after trying to prevent sharing of a single article, costing the website referral traffic. Still, we see this design as a sensible balance between privacy and virality that other news and media apps would do well to mimic.

Privacy controls won’t be implemented by all media apps. Those trying to maximize referral traffic rather than trust may purposefully make it difficult to opt out of sharing. Media companies looking to foster long term relationships with their visitors and sell them on subscription plans will be better off letting users browse in private than risk them browsing elsewhere.