Some Users and Privacy Groups Criticize Facebook’s New Privacy Options

Facebook’s new privacy changes are not making everyone happy, including some users as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The two advocacy organizations have come out with hard-hitting and in-depth articles on the matter.

We’ve already covered many of the changes in detail, especially the ways that Facebook is now encouraging people to share content with everyone on the Internet. So here’s a look at the most significant criticisms.

“Publicly Available Information”

Facebook has exposed some personal profile information that was, for some people, previously private — and it has entirely removed the option of making much of this information private.

This “publicly available information,” as Facebook now describes it, includes profile name, profile picture, list of friends, current city, gender, networks, and pages. Users can choose to not let this content be indexed by web search engines, as well as limit searches for your name on Facebook to “only friends.” However, if users somehow navigate to a profile of somebody they’re not friends with — say, by looking at a mutual friends’ list of friends — there’s no way to hide most of this information from them.

Facebook’s argument, as it states in the new privacy explanation on the site, is as follows:

Making connections—finding people you know, learning about people, searching for what people are saying about topics that interest you—is at the core of our product. This can only happen when people make their information available and choose to share more openly.

When Facebook revised its privacy terms in November, the company changed some language to reflect that some information would be publicly available. Previous language had promised more privacy than what is now available. For example, it had said: “You choose what information you put in your profile, including contact and personal information, pictures, interests and groups you join. And you control the users with whom you share that information through the privacy settings on the Privacy page.” Like the news today, it explained November changes within a more general context of offering meaningful privacy features.

The EFF describes the term changes as “at best confusing and at worst simply untrue.” Certainly, any user had been using the heavy-duty privacy settings but had not carefully read the new terms must feel blindsided today. However, Facebook also said today that only 15 to 20 percent of users have ever adjusted the default privacy settings. So, of course, the many users who already make the above profile information public will not be affected.

The silver lining, for privacy-loving users who want to stay on Facebook, is that there are a few ways to limit some information. Many of the users who criticized today’s changes did so because they wanted granular control over who saw their full list of friends. There’s no long granular control, but you can edit your friend list on your profile to not show your friend list at all. If you edit your basic profile information, you can also choose to hide your gender and your birthday. All of these settings, as the ACLU notes, are buried in the profile editing options rather than the main privacy settings page, meaning users who care may not find how to make these changes.

Other criticisms include the fact that Facebook recommends that you loosen privacy, that the transition tool does not allow most people to strengthen privacy settings, and that third-party applications are now getting access to the “publicly available information” without having to ask explicit permission.

So Why Did Facebook Make These Changes, This Way?

The main criticisms hinge on the idea that users prefer stronger privacy settings than what Facebook offers. This assumption is certainly true for some people, but not clearly true for everyone. And Facebook, as it says in its privacy guide, views the core of its service as being less about privacy and more about open sharing.

The reality is that Facebook is a privately-controlled company, and it can do what it wants. Users can punish Facebook by not using it, which, besides petitions and public criticism, are really the only options available for anyone who’s not happy. Update: Facebook has also released a follow-up blog post explaining the changes in more detail, including how some of the new options work.

We assume that Facebook thought through all of the issues beforehand — the reactions of users, of privacy-focused groups and of some of the press, as well as the possibility of user attrition. The company must believe that all of the costs are worth it if the net result is more people sharing more information. That value, after all, is what helps drive the company’s growth and revenue.