Q&A: Facebook privacy changes

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Facebook's Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has announced wide-ranging changes to the site's user settings, in response to criticism from users, regulators and commentators.

Earlier this week, the social network giant's CEO acknowledged that Facebook had "missed the mark", and moved too quickly in implementing changes to its privacy settings.

What changes have been announced?

The changes fall into three broad areas.

Firstly, Mark Zuckerberg said there will be just one simple privacy control for all your Facebook content.

The new control will apply to all historical content, and all future content and applications, and lets users decide how their information is shared, in a few simple categories, including contact details, photographs, and status updates.

For each category, users will be given the option of sharing their information with either just Facebook friends, friends-of-friends, or all users on the internet.

However, the "granular" controls already offered by Facebook, which allow users to customise privacy settings in a very detailed way, will also still be available.

Secondly, Mr Zuckerberg said that less information will be publicly available on the internet by default, and that users will be given control over who can see, for example, who you are friends with. Such information previously had to be public.

Finally, with respect to third party applications and games, he said that from now on, these will have dramatically restricted access to users' information. New applications selected by users will also need to ask specifically for permission to access private information.

Mark Zuckerberg also announced a new setting to disconnect from the entire Facebook "Platform", consisting of all applications and games on the site. This would apparently prevent all third party applications and games from accessing users' personal data.

But Mr Zuckerberg warned that users should think carefully before implementing this setting, particularly if they had invested time and money in a particular game or application, which would no longer be able to access their information, "potentially wasting" that financial and personal investment.

Why were the changes necessary?

Over recent weeks, Facebook has been in the eye of a storm. The site, which has more than 400 million active users, has faced criticism from regulators and advocacy groups around the world. Bodies including the European Commission and advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation were concerned about the complexity of Facebook's privacy settings.

These had been updated last December, partly in response to concerns raised by Canadian authorities, but Facebook was widely criticised at the time by privacy advocates for "nudging" users towards sharing information, rather than keeping it private.

Then last month, Facebook unveiled a new "social graph" strategy which would enable users to "Like" any website that chose to have a Facebook button on their site. But the connection this made would also potentially grant the external site access to users' personal data.

The social network was confident that the changes would prove popular with users. But a backlash grew against what some observers saw as the latest step in an encroaching invasion of privacy. European Union data protection officials described Facebook's new policies and privacy settings as "unacceptable".

Thousands of users committed to quit Facebook on May 31 via a website, whilst a range of commentators started criticising the site, and several high profile users quit Facebook themselves.

Are all Facebook users complaining?

In a word, no. In fact, whilst more than 20,000 users have committed to quitting Facebook, the site says that it has gained 10 million active users in the four weeks since the developers' conference at which its so-called "social graph" changes were unveiled.

Hasn't Facebook had similar problems in the past?

Yes, the social network has seen occasional crises like this.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation advocacy group has recently described the changes to the site's user agreement since its inception, as "Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy".

But Facebook's first really serious backlash came around the creation of an advertising programme called "Beacon", which it launched in late 2007. The service was designed to inform a Facebook user's friends when that person bought something online.

There were broad privacy concerns, from more mundane worries that people would get a sneak preview of Christmas or birthday presents they were going to receive, to concerns about lack of clarity about how much personal data would be shared with Facebook's advertising partners.

A public backlash forced Facebook to first convert Beacon from an opt-out service to one where users needed to opt-in. The service was finally withdrawn altogether in September 2009, along with a near $10 million class-action law suit settlement after it was alleged that Facebook failed to provide adequate information and privacy controls in relation to Beacon.

And in summer 2009, Canadian authorities declared that Facebook was in breach of the country's privacy rules, so the social network clarified the way that users could leave the site, offering the option to either "deactivate" their page, or delete all the content as well.

Will this satisfy Facebook's critics?

For Facebook, this is the key question. It is likely to take a few days for users to absorb the new policies, and for global privacy campaigners to assess the latest changes, as well as get to grips with the small print.

Simon Davies is the director of the global advocacy group, Privacy International. In response to the changes, he said "these measures go a small distance towards solving Facebook's overall privacy problem.

"The biggest challenges are yet to come though. The first of these is that the vast majority of people don't use privacy settings."

Mark Zuckerberg and his team will be hoping that they have made significant enough changes to calm their critics, and persuade some of the users who have committed to quit on May 31 to stay with the social network.

Facebook users are also known for being a pretty vocal bunch, but there are signs that they come to accept innovation on the site. According to the social network, almost 10% of the site's 10 million users joined a group protesting the creation of the "NewsFeed" in 2006, which first automatically showed detailed updates of what users' friends were doing.

Since then, Facebook's membership has grown by well over 350 million active users.

Are there other potential flash points for Facebook in the future?

It's a distinct possibility. The recent criticisms have breathed new life into young entrepreneurs who are hoping to try and launch social networks to rival Facebook.

A feature common to many of the potential rivals' plans is a common digital language that would let members of one social network follow and interact with members of another social network.

This contrasts with what many observers regard as Facebook's "walled garden" approach, where data stays within Facebook, and users can only interact with other Facebook members.

The innovators compare their "open" social networking approach to the way that e-mail developed from a system that initially allowed communication within, say, AOL or Compuserve's user base, to one where e-mail became universal.

And there have been calls from data protection and privacy advocates around the world for Facebook to make it easier to interact with other social networks, and for the site to make it easier for its members to download and save their data, potentially for transfer to a rival social network.

Facebook would be likely to oppose any such change, as it might undermine the site's exclusivity. But it remains to be seen whether this issue becomes a challenge from regulators and activists around the world.

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