Live from Facebook: The New New Privacy Controls

After enduring weeks of criticism over new privacy controls announced at its recent developer conference, Facebook today is announcing new, simpler privacy controls for its leading social network service. The company, whose latest changes that opened up more information sharing took many users by surprise, has promised they will be much simpler. Expectations are high, not least in Washington D.C., where Facebook executives under fire by Congress members will try to persuade them they’re on the right track.

I’m at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto for a press briefing on the details. I’ll liveblog the details here. But first, here are the basics from Facebook’s fact sheet:

* Completely redesigned the privacy settings page to be much more simple.

* Created one control for content. A new simple control makes it easy to share on Facebook with friends, friends of friends or everyone—all with just one click. The corresponding settings are immediately applied and displayed in an easy-to-understand grid. At the same time, Facebook has maintained its more granular settings for those who want to customize their level of sharing. These settings now all appear on a single page for easier access.

* Significantly reduced the amount of information that is always visible to everyone. Friends and Pages (your connections) can now be restricted to anyone you want. To help people recognize you, your name, profile picture, networks, and gender are always open to everyone (though half of these you don’t need to add).

* Given you more control over how applications and websites access your information. Now you can completely turn off Facebook Platform applications and websites, which means that your information will not be shared with applications. We also made it very simple to turn off instant personalization. You can ensure that your information is not shared with current or future instant personalization applications by un-checking the box to “Enable instant personalization.”

* Get a better understanding of how you like to share on Facebook. The new presets help us understand the overall privacy level you’re comfortable with for the things you share. As we roll out new products, we want to apply the right setting for you at the outset—eliminating the need for you to check your setting each time a new feature is introduced. We’re committed to carrying over your presets for new products that facilitate sharing. So, if you choose the “Friends Only” preset for “Sharing on Facebook”, new products that have privacy settings will be automatically set to “Friends Only” as well.

These changes will roll out over the next couple of weeks.

OK, we’re getting underway with an intro by public policy chief Elliott Schrage, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg queued up at the side of the room. Here’s his blog post. You can also find the press release here and a fact sheet here, along with the new privacy guide and screenshots.

And now Zuckerberg is up:

“It’s been a pretty intense few weeks for us,” he says with evident understatement. “Our teams internally have been cranking on what we’re going to show you today for a couple of weeks.”

“People want to stay connected with their family and friends. We believe that people want to share information, and they’re best able to do that when they have control… a good safe environment.”

More background on Facebook’s philosophy and recent changes. Mostly he’s providing reasons for why Facebook has gradually opened up information sharing, and how doing that through features like regional networks and groups got to be unwieldy, exposing more information to more people than users expected. Thus the much more granular privacy controls, broadly creating three categories with changes made last December: friends, friends of friends, and everyone.

And finally after that long wind-up, he’s moving up to today. “We really need to simplify the controls. A lot of what we were trying to do got lost in the shuffle.”

The No. 1 thing we’ve heard: The settings have gotten complex (that’s for sure). Original idea was to give people more granular controls, which will remain. But because of that complexity, “you don’t actually feel you have control over your information.”

Now, sharing will be controlled with one simple control; it will apply to all content retroactively; and it will apply to new products going forward, so you don’t have to decide proactively every time.

So the new Choose Your Privacy Settings page has a simpler template for choosing what info can be seen by friends, friends of friends, or everyone. There’s also a link to go more granular if you choose.

On to the basic directory information by which people find you on Facebook: There will be less publicly available info. And on the platform broadly: There will be full opt-out for all applications (though it’s not opt-in, which will continue to bother privacy advocates). There’s also easy opt-out for instant personalization. And there will be granular (detailed) ways to control info sharing.

“We really want to make sure we communicate this stuff clearly.” So Facebook also has revamped the privacy guide. There also will be a message at the top of your home page in the next week to send people to this new guide.

Any kudos or complaints can be sent to Facebook at this link:

And now on to the press questions. First one, no surprise, is from Robert Scoble: “I’m having a problem with trust”–yes, that’s the key more than privacy itself, I think. “What’s your approach to regaining that trust” given all the criticized privacy changes:

Zuckerberg: “We always listen. … The privacy concerns are very important.” But he says there is no evidence large numbers of people are leaving Facebook, despite a number of high-profile bloggers doing so. Second, he says something called the “net promoter” score, which measures the extent to which users get others to join, often goes down after policy changes but then rises even higher than before after some time.

“We really do think about the trust issues. I take that really seriously.”

Question from the Washington Post: To what extent did concern of regulators play into the new changes? And how are advertisers and partners responding?

Zuckerberg:  They did have input. Had conversations with the senators who expressed concern. But the leading indicator is the number of people using the service, because that represents the actual users. He also says the worries that more open info disclosure will mean intrusions by advertisers is completely wrong. But I’m not really following his line of reasoning, to be honest.

Question from a French journalist: Why not offer complete privacy by default?

Zuckerberg: Because the service itself is intended for people to share information. The site has never worked in a way that when you sign up you only can connect with your existing friends. That’s not really why people are on the service. (Which is true–why join Facebook at all if you don’t want to share anything with anybody? But I think there’s a desire by at least some to have more private groups of friends.)

Question from Australian journalist, who says authorities there are complaining about the greater disclosure of info on Facebook.

Zuckerberg: That’s not what users have told us what they want. They want to share information. That’s one thing we think is changing in the world. (Perhaps true, but not for everybody, and those people want better controls.)

Question from Liz Gannes of Gigaom: Have you seen more negative feedback with this latest round of changes (before today)?

Zuckerberg: Changes in the news feed policy several years ago was actually the biggest protest.

Question from Ben Parr of Mashable: How are you going to avoid backlashes in the future?

Zuckerberg: We did this wave of change (in privacy settings). Maybe we should have gone a bit slower. Maybe we should have communicated a bit clearer. But… privacy by far is the most sensitive thing. … Response might have been a lot worse if we dragged them out over six months. “One of the big takeaways is just don’t mess with the privacy stuff for a long time.”

Question from Do people realize that “everyone” in the privacy settings means “the entire Internet”?

Zuckerberg: Actually the wording on sharing for specific posts says just that. Also, a lot of people change their settings–more than half have changed at least one setting. So that’s a sign (he says) that people do understand the settings.

Question from Julia Boorstin at CNBC: To what extent were advertising and revenue considerations in these changes?

Zuckerberg: We really didn’t think of revenue. … He goes into a story how at age 22, he decided not to sell the company. Money wasn’t an object. “Any amount of money would not be worth the last few years of building the company.” … Same deal now. “We are working on building an ads business, and that’s an important part of what we do.” But when building services for users, that enters in “not at all.”

Question from Nick Bilton of the New York Times: How will you deal with any new backlash against these rules?

Zuckerberg: “We are really going to try not to have another backlash.” Basic thrust of today’s changes: You can set controls once and they will apply to all future products.

One more question from Greg Sterling: Did you see any diminution in usage?

Zuckerberg: “There’s no statistically significant changes.”

Q: So why did you make the changes?

Zuckerberg: “We thought they were the right thing to do.”

“There’s so much more left to do. And we’re open to feedback on what to do.”

And that’s it. The gist: Zuckerberg still seemed to be defending Facebook’s right to open up people’s information disclosure in a way that he believes society increasingly wants. But he’s also offering more concrete ways to opt out. Of course, it’s still largely opt-out, the explicit assumption being that people opt in at the outset: They don’t join Facebook unless they want to share things in at least a minimal way.

UPDATE: I’ve pinged privacy advocates for their take on the latest changes. Read on for the details, but barring further privacy blowups (admittedly a big assumption given Facebook’s checkered history here), it appears that Facebook’s latest moves may be just enough to quiet the privacy furor. (Update: Or, maybe not–though judging from Sen. Charles Schumer’s recent comments, it’s possible Facebook could dodge a regulatory bullet–this time.) To be sure, it’s a mixed bag (and on Zuckerberg’s blog post itself, I’m seeing a lot of critics commenting). The American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California branch issued a mostly positive assessment. So did the Progress & Freedom Foundation, whose senior fellow and director of its Center for Internet Freedom, Berin Szoka, put out the following statement:

By giving users powerful new tools to further protect their privacy, Facebook has employed a potent weapon to deal with marketplace apprehensions: self-regulation. Government intervention stands little chance in acting as swiftly or as effectively to tackle such matters. Rather than short-circuiting the self-regulatory process, we should trust that users are capable of choosing for themselves if given the right tools, and that companies like Facebook will respond to reputational pressure to develop, and constantly improve, those tools. That approach is far more likely to move us towards the ideal of user empowerment than is heavy-handed government regulation, which would override marketplace experimentation and have many unintended consequences for free online sites and services like Facebook.

On the other hand, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy just penned a blog post that’s more critical:

Facebook made some positive changes today, but only because of political pressure from policymakers and privacy advocates on both sides of the Atlantic.  Mr. Zuckerberg’s failure to acknowledge the political realities don’t bode well for Facebook’s future approach to privacy:  he appears to be living a Alice in Digital Wonderland fantasy, where he only makes changes on privacy because he has the goodwill of its users in mind.  Just last December 9, after all, Facebook made one of its typical self-reverential announcements that it was “rolling out easy-to-use tools to empower people to personalize control over their information.”  These changes triggered a user revolt, letters from Senators, an opinion ordering a reversal from the EU, and concern from the FTC.

There are more simplified and manageable privacy settings, and Facebook has made an important first (or back-tracking!) step.  Unfortunately, Facebook still refuses to give its users control over the data it collects for its targeted advertising products.  The defaults should also be initially set for non-sharing, with the minimization of data collection at the core of Facebook’s approach to privacy.   CDD and other privacy groups will examine these new settings and identify where further changes should be made, including on advertising data.  Meanwhile, we want Congress to hold hearings on social networking privacy, with Mr. Zuckerberg as a star witness.  Mr. Zuckerberg should be asked to explain how Facebook continues to develop new approaches to data collection and privacy–from Beacon to Instant Personalization–that continually lowers the bar–until the company has to do some form of hasty retreat.   Congress needs to examine how Facebook develops its approach to privacy, and what its business plans mean for the future.

CDD will also press the FTC to investigate Facebook, including acting on complaints filed with EPIC and other groups.  It’s time for the FTC to announce guidelines to protect social networking privacy on Facebook and other sites.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation seems to come down squarely in the middle with a commentary by senior staff attorney Kevin Bankston entitled, Facebook’s New Privacy Improvements Are a Positive Step, But There’s Still More Work To Be Done:

The changes are pretty good, though more is needed.

All of the new settings are positive steps toward giving Facebook users more control over the privacy of their data, directly responding to several of EFF’s criticisms and reversing some of the worst of Facebook’s privacy missteps. However, we still have some fundamental concerns about the amount of user information being shared with third-party Facebook applications and web sites. So we hope that this is only Facebook’s first step in a more privacy-conscious direction, rather than its last. Ultimately, Facebook must respect its own principles and users’ privacy rights by giving users full control over how all their information is shared. (See EFF’s Bill of Privacy Rights for social network users.) …

In Conclusion…

We appreciate that Facebook has taken the time to listen and respond to the public outcry over its latest privacy changes, and although today’s changes don’t address all of our concerns, they are a great first step in what will hopefully be a more privacy-driven direction for Facebook. We look forward to a continuing dialogue with Facebook on how to improve privacy on the site. In the meantime, stay tuned for more information from EFF on how to use these new options to maximize your privacy when you choose to share information with your friends and family on Facebook.

3 Responses

  1. Speaking of typos! Ha! Editors are still needed in this. Too bad nobody can afford them.

  2. Boy, when push comes to shove, you can sure tell the difference between a professional journalist who has been coving news for years and bloggers who new to this. I can’t believe you’re so fast and detailed – and no typos, misspells or poor grammar.

    I’ve been watching other live blogging of this. Yours is far and away the best, Rob. Way to go!

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Hof and Topher Burns, Cassel Kroll. Cassel Kroll said: PSA RT @robhof: Liveblogging the Facebook privacy press conference, starting with CEO Mark Zuckerberg: […]

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