Facebook Simplifies its Privacy Policies: Los Angeles Times, July 2009

Go ahead, share that status update – not just with all your friends on Facebook but with the whole wide Internet.

Facebook unveiled some incremental changes in its privacy policies today, giving users the ability to make some of what they put on the site available to the entire Internet. Sort of like what Twitter has already been doing for a couple of years.

Although the name Twitter didn’t come up in Facebook’s conference call, it had to be on the company’s mind, as the two firms vie to become the main platform where people share details of their lives.

Facebook had first announced the “everyone” option in March and shed some more light on it today. It also said it planned to streamline the process to make it easier for people to control who can see their activity on the site, and that it would provide a transition to give people time to learn the new rules.

The fast-growing social networking company said it aimed to make its privacy settings easier to use, particularly for newcomers to the site, so that people would know exactly who can read what they write or see their photos and videos.

“As we’ve added more controls and the ability to share information, we’ve also had additional privacy settings, and over time, they add up in piles, and it’s not as clean as people want,” Chris Kelly, the company’s chief privacy officer, said in a conference call.

Kelly said the company would put privacy controls in one easy-to-find spot on the site and would also include actionable items in the places where users post information so they could better manage privacy on individual pieces of information.

Most noteworthy was a “publisher privacy control” that the company has been testing. Right in the box where someone would write a status update – the brief dialogue at the top of someone’s Facebook page that announces to friends that person’s latest thought or activity – people will be offered the choice to share the update with “everyone,” with only their “friends” or with a “custom” group, in which the person can pick which individuals get the information.

Facebook members also will have the ability to decide whether Facebook can share their information and activity with advertisers, according to Kelly.

In addition, Facebook said it would remove the site’s “regional networks,” which product manager Leah Pearlman said were confusing.

Kelly has posted information on the changes to Facebook’s blog, and the slide presentationis also available online.

Privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in an e-mail that Facebook has tended to get in trouble whenever it changes user settings.

“It will be very important that users are not opted-in to data sharing under the new settings where they had previously opted out with the original settings,” he wrote. “Facebook also needs to do more to address data collection by third-party app developers. Too much personal information, made public by Facebook, ends up in secret profiles.”

But Facebook said all privacy settings stay the same, until the user changes — or in privacy-speak, “opts in” — to new settings.In a statement, Kelly said, “We are simplifying some settings to give users more control over their own data, and requiring them to make an affirmative choice before these changes are made. User control is at the heart of Facebook’s privacy philosophy, and these improvements are all being made with a deep respect for that principle.”

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