What Facebook’s new privacy controls mean for users

Facebook recently announced changes to some of its privacy controls which are, on the whole, positive changes. For the most part, these changes are focused on giving users more information about how and where their as well as giving them more control over how their personal information is shared on Facebook. The announcement on the Facebook Newsroom page details the various changes but here is a summary:

Today’s updates include Privacy Shortcuts, and easier-to-use Activity Log, and a new Request and Removal tool for managing multiple photos you’re tagged in. We are also adding new in-product education that makes key concepts around controlling your sharing clearer, such as in-context reminders about how stuff you hide from timeline may still appear in news feed, search, and other places.

One of the problems with Facebook’s approach to its privacy controls in the past has been accessible the controls have been to most users, both in terms of where they have been located and how intelligible they are. Most of Facebook’s billion-odd users probably accept the default settings and are not aware of the extent to which they share their personal information and content with other users.

2012-12 Facebook context menu screenshotOne of the more significant changes that Facebook has announced is that privacy settings will be accessible through contextual shortcuts within Facebook depending on what a user is doing at that point in time. The shortcuts will be available from the Facebook toolbar and accessing the key settings will be a matter of selecting one of three options, namely “Who can see my stuff?”; “Who can contact me?” And “How do I stop someone from bothering me?”. This last option is a welcome addition to the “Report/Block” menu option in the context menu on a particular person’s profile. We are often asked how a Facebook user may block or report another user and this new setting makes it easier to do that.

Another change is a modification of the app permissions dialogue. Before the change, users would normally be presented with a single dialogue asking them to agree to allow an application to access their profile and publish updates on their behalf:

The first time you log into a new app, it asks for permission to use your info to personalize your experience. Some apps also ask to post to Facebook.
Before today, these two requests were part of the same screen and happened at the same time. Soon you’ll start to see these requests happen separately, so you have more control over what you share. For example, a person can grant a music app the ability to read their public profile and friends list to personalize their experience in the app, but decline to allow it to post what they listen to to Facebook on their behalf.

Many of the apps you use will move to this new model, but some will not – for example, games apps on Facebook.com will not change. For more information on how these new permissions will work, see our developer blog.

Theoretically, these new permissions dialogues give users more control over what personal information is shared and how an app may share updates in a user’s timeline. These options were available before this change and remains to be seen just how effective they are in giving users more control over their personal information and their timelines. What we may find is that these new dialogues may just be irritating and users may click through them without giving them much thought. This will obviously negate their purpose.

Another change the privacy controls which is particularly helpful is the addition of contextual information about the implications of various actions on Facebook for users’ privacy. Facebook as created a series of messages to help users “understand, in context, that the content you hide from your timeline may still appear in newsfeed, search and other places”. This is particularly helpful especially in light of the recent and widespread use of messages intended to protect copyright and privacy but which only created a degree of panic and had no real legal significance on Facebook. With these new messages, users should be better educated about what their choices mean and how their personal information and updates may still be available elsewhere.

In a similar vein, users will also have more control over how and when they are tagged and associated with content like photos and updates. Users will be able to request their friends to remove tags (although users who are concerned about this should modify their privacy settings to prevent anyone tagging them without their permission). Apparently these requests tend to have a better response in test scenarios which Facebook conducted while developing this feature.

Facebook’s search functionality is also being upgraded and users will be able to search across other users’ profiles more effectively. Regardless of your privacy settings, your name and profile photo will always show up in search results even if you don’t allow any more of your profile information to be made available in search results. This is something that users should be aware of and, to the extent, updates to their profiles have been hidden by obscurity due to Facebook’s poor search functionality should consider that their updates are now going to be more readily discoverable.

Bottom line is that the changes are better for users overall. They make privacy controls more accessible and intelligible while, at the same time, giving users better information about how their personal information is used.

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