Privacy worries spark backlash FaceBook: Popular site makes personal information more available

For the London Free Press - June 21, 2010 Read this on Canoe

Many people are not concerned about their privacy on Facebook - but they should be. Facebook's recent changes are a good lesson in how not to make changes that affect or control privacy.On April 21, 2010, at a Facebook developers' conference called "F8", the company introduced new features that essentially allow Facebook users to share more information about themselves with more people.

This sounds great, but the changes were made in a way that opened up people's information without asking them first.

In other words, the new privacy defaults were more permissive than the previous defaults, and things that were private suddenly became public. Privacy options were expanded, but many found the options too complex and difficult to understand, thus requiring a lot of time and energy for each user to go in and adjust the settings.

That assumes of course that users first found out about the changes, understood that they needed to alter privacy settings, and took the time to actually do it.

Facebook believes that more users want to share more information about themselves as society becomes more transparent, and the new default settings reflected this. This is different from the more private attitude that Facebook started out with.

Frankly, that's a decision that users must decide for themselves on an individual basis. You and I should get to decide that, not Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Transparency is a good thing when it comes to understanding privacy choices, but transparency about an individual's information is a decision that each individual must get to make for themselves.

Transparency is a concept that is now in vogue for business and government alike. It is about accountability to their stakeholders. That concept does not, however, translate to us as individuals or our personal information.

It may be that Facebook was trying to be more like Twitter. The difference is that everyone knows that comments one makes on Twitter can be seen by anyone, as Twitter's fundamental purpose is to share one's thoughts with the world. That's not the understanding people have when they sign up for Facebook.

User outrage has lead to recent changes. Facebook has created more simplified options on their privacy settings page, including cutting the number of settings from 50 to around 15 and consolidating seven pages of choices into three.

The lessons here for anyone providing services are numerous:

- Don't make changes that automatically open up user information more than it already is. 

- Make privacy choices as clear and simple as possible.

- Make clear what information will be shared with whom, so users can make informed choices.

- Set defaults conservatively and allow users to open it up - not the other way.

- Think about privacy when doing new things to get it right at the outset. 

And if you are a Facebook user and have not looked at your privacy settings recently, take another look and change them if they are not to your liking.