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Facebook Rewriting Privacy

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David Silversmith
David Silversmith

Last week Facebook held a conference call outlining changes the site is starting to make with regards to its privacy options. Facebook claims the changes are to make privacy setting easier but clearly they also want users to become more comfortable sharing their content with the "everyone" category.

While Facebook is trying to be respectful of privacy there is no way around the fact that Facebook the business prospers by people sharing.  Whether all the people, the Facebook users, prosper when sharing is a matter of great dispute.  In Facebook's blog they write, "The power to share is the cornerstone of Facebook."  But sharing has to be coordinated with privacy, "Privacy and the tools for tailoring what information is shared with whom are at the heart of trust."

So Facebook is trying to balance people controlling what they share, tools for privacy that are simple to use and connections - the lifeblood of Facebook's success.  Whether you like Facebook's privacy approach or not, most folks will agree that it is no longer simple.

Every time they added a new feature, they usually included a corresponding privacy setting. As a result you have privacy settings that are spread over multiple pages.  They are moving towards simplifying all these settings and putting all the privacy settings on the same page.  At the same time they are going to standardize the options we provide for each setting so the choices are always the same.  Clearly these are positive steps for all Facebook users.

The part of the strategy that will raise some eyebrows is their statement that "at one extreme, we believe people should have the tools to 'broadcast' information across the web and make it available to everyone.  The everyone option will enable users share more broadly if they want.  This will allow all information to be shared with all users and with Google.  The challenge is that many of Facebook’s users are still in high school (and one would suspect that more than a few younger kids have even lied on their Facebook registration).  Will these kids, and even many adults, really understand that once you share all your personal data you can't put the genie back in the bottle!

The other challenge with Facebook's approach is that they are testing 6 different approaches to this transition.  We're not talking tests at a focus group center with a couple of folks - we are talking live tests with tens of thousands of unsuspecting users.

This screen is one of 6 different approaches that will be tested.  While it is great to try and get maximum understanding - most companies test offline, not with tens of thousands of unsuspecting test cases.

One of the funniest parts of the conference call was when they took questions and somebody noted that  Facebook was clearly looking to encourage users to open up their data to the public and they asked for the Facebook's motivations. Facebook’s response was that "it wants people to make their data public because it helps disambiguate users with similar names." 

In the end, Facebook is making some great strides in privacy management - but the road is certainly paved with quite a few landmines ahead.  Adjust your privacy settings with caution!

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