Today Facebook held a Web cast marking the launch of a new privacy PR blitz, meant to convince users (and governmental regulators worldwide) that the Palo Alto company is treating the issue of privacy with consummate care. Facebook is going all out here: they've hired lobbyists all over the world, they're giving interviews, and they're rolling out new features. So what's changing?
First: more nuanced control of who sees what. These controls will be rolled out to users who have their profiles set to be totally public at first; if you don't see controls like these, it's because you have some privacy settings already in place. They're simpler, more elegant, and more granular. Instead of a bunch of different pages that control privacy settings, there will be just one, and each thing you post--be it a status update, photo, whatever--will have an optional privacy setting, so you can choose who sees what on a post-by-post basis.
Gone will be geographical networks (eg, New York), because as privacy scion at Facebook Chris Kelly says, they don't really allow you to choose "exactly the audience with whom [you] wish to share." To the same effect, Facebook has eliminated some overlapping controls. They emphasize that none of these changes will give any more of your info away to advertisers.
To help the common man figure out this mess, Facebook is launching something called Transition Tool next week. It'll help you define just what certain privacy settings mean, like who exactly the "everyone" setting applies to (it really is "everyone"--adjust your settings just so, and it allows Google to index your info). It'll also encourage you to re-evaluate your privacy settings with the new improved interface. And to think: you were going to spend the next few hours seeing the new Transformers movie. Pshh.
For all the nuance that Facebook seems to be adding to their system, what it's really doing is encouraging you to share more without fear of reprisal from some unintended viewer. Before, I might have thought twice before putting up photos of my drunken bachelor party, at which one stripper may or may not have mysteriously disappeared. Now, I'll go ahead and upload the evidence, confident that I can customize the photos in a way that will prevent my mom or grandma (or perhaps, local law enforcement) from accidentally stumbling upon them. And because the settings have become ultra-granular, I can even control which of my status updates go public, and which stay within my closest circle of friends. Before, I'd edit for the highest common denominator--now I can feel free to archive the worst of myself. Is the ability to overshare really a good thing?
In their recent discussion of "data portability"--the ability to take your Facebook info elsewhere--ReadWriteWeb made an excellent analogy about Facebook's cache of personal information: they said that "your information is like your cash deposits" at a bank. The more you post and "share," the more cash you pump into your account, tying you to the establishment. In a sense, Facebook's new "granular" controls are like a bank's new products. "Check out the new high-yield CDs from your favorite neighborhood thrift!" the new controls shout. "Here's another reason to hand more of your money over to us!" But unlike the products at your local bank, the yield you get from Facebook is hardly a sure thing. While Facebook says it is "philosophically aligned" with the data portability movement, it is, right now, still a kind of silo that traps every bit of personal history you feed into it. What if you approached your bank and asked for all your money, so you could take it elsewhere? They'd be forced to oblige. No such thing with Facebook. Invest carefully.
To read an alexandrine discussion of what privacy means in the realm of Facebook, check out this UMass-Amherst graduate student's thesis entitled, "Saving Face: The Privacy Architecture of Facebook."