Round-up: Facebook privacy reversal receives mixed reaction

With the official Quit Facebook Day only three days away, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched a media blitz to introduce a simplified set of privacy settings that the social networking site hopes will appease their many disgruntled users. The official Facebook blog has laid out a complete overview of the changes.

Reaction has been guardedly optimistic, but by no means universally acclaimed. The changes break down into three simple categories.

In a nutshell, there is to be a simple master control to set who can see the various types of content users share. Secondly, there is a reduced amount of information that has to be visible to everyone for you to successfully use Facebook. According to Zuckerberg, this means that “who your friends are and what pages you are fans of will now be private by default.”

Thirdly, it’s going to be simple to control whether third-party applications and other websites can access any of your information. Furthermore, these new settings will be applied retroactively, which means that any information already entered into the system will fall under the same controls.

Reaction to the privacy reforms has been mixed, and has largely broken down into two groups:

Civil liberties groups, activists and consumer watchdogs have come out largely in favour of the changes, while technology writers have been far less enthusiastic in their appraisal. While acknowledging on the surface that things seem better and more in control, their deeper worries are that very little has actually changed under the surface.

The American Civil Liberties Union was guardedly optimistic, in saying that “Today’s changes are a major step forward for privacy on Facebook: users simply have more and better controls today than they had yesterday. There are still substantial issues that Facebook needs to address, but they deserve credit for today’s release.”

The World Privacy Forum and the Consumer Federation of America enthusiastically stated that “This is a very significant improvement in their approach to privacy, and it helps consumers.”

However, in the eyes of many commentators, the changes, which are to be rolled out over the next days and weeks, appear underwhelming to say the least.

Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Freedom Foundation is sceptical. He explains that “Beyond the set-up page, Facebook’s privacy controls are now more complex and more powerful. The new set-up page seems more designed to pry this privacy from you than give you access to the new, and excellent, controls that Facebook has put in place.” He goes on to claim that “Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data.”

Many commentators, including Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore during a PBS television debate, have expressed the opinion that sharing data with third party users should be opt-in rather than opt-out in the first place, but this seems to run so fundamentally against the DNA of Facebook’s business plan that it is unlikely ever to happen.

Facebook’s credibility has taken a huge knock and the jury is still out as to whether these changes will appease the millions of concerned users.

Caroline McCarthy on CNet News correctly points out that “much of the hullabaloo surrounding Facebook’s recent changes wasn’t necessarily the changes themselves, but how easily and willfully the company could make a major turnaround in user experience. Some members still may not trust the company out of a concern that this could happen again all too easily.”

And perhaps the most scathing report of all came from ZDNet’s Jack Whitaker who concluded that “if I didn’t face social ostracisation or exclusion, I would have shut down my Facebook profile weeks, if not months ago. These new privacy settings mean jack squat and are only being rolled out to satisfy the press-hungry needs of the wider reading public.”

Currently there are just over 23 000 users who have opted to be part of Quit Facebook Day, a drop in the ocean against Facebook’s 500-million users, but it remains to be seen whether this movement will grow in strength or fizzle out in reaction to the new privacy controls.



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