The Facebook public image offensive continued today with a press conference at the social network’s Palo Alto headquarters announcing its new “simplified” privacy settings.
The event is a marked departure from Facebook’s general method of announcing changes via relatively subtle blog posts and notices on the site. The news conference, announced yesterday, came as a surprise to industry analysts who expected privacy setting changes to come in the next few weeks, not days.
It follows a tumultuous month of growing discontent among users, consumer advocates, and most notably, government officials, with the site’s increasingly complex privacy settings. There has also been a string of site bugs that leaked profile information to advertisers and private e-mails and chats to random users.
"We just didn’t communicate as well as we should have," said Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Expanding on his op-ed column published Monday in the Washington Post, Zuckerberg acknowledged the backlash over Facebook's privacy policies, while steering clear of any mention of the series of technical glitches.
"Feedback we got from users really resonated. That's why we holed up for the last couple of weeks," brainstorming and developing the changes the site will roll out over the next week, he said. These updates will include simplified privacy, the returned ability to hide basic information, and controls to opt out of having third parties access user profiles.
Users may attribute these fast changes as a response to member activism, such as the “Quit Facebook Day" campaign scheduled for May 31. However, there is no data that supports any significant loss from the site’s 400 million-plus active users.
More likely, this is an aggressive strategy to get in front of government as the site morphs from a basic social network to a one-stop Internet portal. The Federal Trade Commission recently raised concerns following a letter from four senators demanding that the government organization examine Facebook's policies.
Facebook, which now has a policies office in Washington D.C., is no doubt prepared for this eventuality. What’s more, the mea culpa tour continues tomorrow in Washington D.C. when Facebook representatives meet with House and Senate staff to discuss the changes announced today.
Zuckerberg broke down those changes into three categories:
Sharing: One simple control, with options
Last month’s changes required users to navigate 50 settings (with more than 170 options) to set up profile privacy, as shown in a recent New York Times infographic.
Change: One control will lock down all information — a change that will be retroactive on the site — with the option for those granular changes if you still want them. Further, third parties won’t automatically have access to profiles of your Facebook friends.
Less of your info will be out there
As of December, Facebook users were no longer able to hide “basic” profile information such as current city, hometown, education, work, likes, interests, and friends — unless they deleted that content.
Change: Users will have the option of hide “basic” information.
Control over whether apps and websites can access your information
Facebook’s “instant personalization” means that users who access Facebook's partners Yelp, Pandora or Microsoft allow those sites to access profile information — unless you opt out of each, individual site. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Change: Users will have more control over access to their profile information, with the ability to block the site’s info-sharing profile completely. (If you play games on the site, you still have to allow access.)
As with all changes to the site, he said, April’s updates were meant to improve user experience for the site's nearly half-billion users — not to offer up even more user information to advertisers.
Regularly returning to the site's meteoric rise over its six-year existence, Zuckerberg stressed that the way the site is used now is vastly different from its beginnings in his Harvard dorm room. To that end, "We try to be innovative and iterative in our development," he said.
This isn’t the biggest “backlash” Facebook has experienced, Zuckerberg said. That came with the “newsfeed” changes to the site, which resulted in protests outside the Facebook offices.
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