Facebook Privacy Changes Not Enough, Critics Say


In response to a firestorm of criticism from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier this week that the company would be rolling out several broad privacy changes, implemented in phases over the next few weeks.

"The number one thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information," Zuckerberg said in a Facebook blog post. "We've always offered a lot of controls, but if you find them too hard to use then you won't feel like you have control. Unless you feel in control, then you won't be comfortable sharing and our service will be less useful for you. We agree we need to improve this."

Some of the biggest changes Facebook is making are reforms to the highly controversial "Connections" setting, which exposes users' profile data, such as education, employer and relationships to search engines and other third-party applications. The changes give users more say in how their data is shared and gives them an easier way to completely "opt out" of sharing their personal information with everyone on Facebook and third-party Web sites with its Facebook Platform.

Zuckerberg said that Facebook is also eliminating confusion around opting out of links that share personal profile information, such as activities and interests, with other Websites in Facebook's highly contested Instant Personalization feature, launched in April.

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Facebook also is providing a new basic privacy settings page that allows users to set their own "default privacy level," including options such as Friends Only, Friends of Friends, "everyone" or a mix of all three, which is then applied uniformly across their individual privacy settings. The site also simplified the number of settings from 50 to about 15 and reduced privacy setting pages from seven to three.

However, many privacy rights groups say Facebook's policy reforms don't far enough to protect users' personal information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says that while Facebook's privacy changes are a good first step, "more is needed" to adequately address privacy concerns.

"All of the new settings are positive steps toward giving Facebook users more control over the privacy of their data, directly responding to several of EFF's criticisms and reversing some of the worst of Facebook's privacy missteps," said Kevin Bankston, EFF senior staff attorney, in a blog post. "However, we still have some fundamental concerns about the amount of user information being shared with third-party Facebook applications and web sites. So we hope that this is only Facebook's first step in a more privacy-conscious direction, rather than its last."

For one, the EFF maintains that the Instant Personalization setting, should have been reformed to include "opt in" feature, as opposed to an "opt out."

In addition, the EFF said that personally identifying data, such as users' names, profile pictures, and friends' lists remain "public information" and are still freely available on the Internet.

Meanwhile, other watchdog groups have lambasted Facebook for its "just enough" method of privacy reform. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), along with a slew of online privacy advocate groups, has filed two Federal Trade Commission complaints against Facebook in the past six months, maintaining that its practices were "unfair and deceptive" while urging an FTC investigation.

"These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook’s own representations," the EPIC said in its complaint.

While the EPIC says that Facebook's revamped privacy policies are a step in the right direction, they indicate that Facebook's tweaks may only represent a cosmetic change and serve as a tactic to delay undergoing further scrutiny by the FTC.