Facebook turned on the adjustments to its privacy settings today, as promised. Some are good. But others seem ill-considered. Last week I teased Facebook for not delivering quite the service customers wanted. When will Facebook learn?
The simplification of Facebook's layers of privacy ditches the "networks" level of friendship within the service (in the past, you could define a network and then choose what information you shared with the people in that group). And this is a simpler way to control your privacy, which is quite definitely a boon for Facebook's millions of users—particularly those concerned with protecting their online presence. You can now exercise privacy settings on each and every update you post—which arguably should've been built in from the start.
But, as they're pointing out over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the news is not all shiny and exciting. Somewhat akin to the concerns about Facebook's behavior I discussed last week, there's an odd little twist to Facebook's changes today that is almost, but not quite, in your best interests. The default settings that Facebook recommends goes something like: "transmit all your status updates and uploads to everyone on the Net, not just your friends." Since Facebook estimates that only 15% to 20% of users take the time to adjust the privacy settings to suit their needs, this is most definitely going to lead to people sharing too much information, or accidentally leaking out stuff they thought was semi-private (which is great for reporters, but maybe not so good for everyone else). Given that "inappropriate" content your Facebook profile can get you fired by an overly-prudish boss nowadays, this is bound to cause an uproar.
There's also less control over some information you used to be able to keep private: Like who your friends are, your gender or current city (one caveat: Facebook will only share info with everyone if you're over 18). You used to be able to be an invisible user to lookie-loos coming from, say Google searches, and sharing information about yourself with only a select group of people you'd accepted as friends. Now Facebook's crafted a whole new layer of what it calls "Publicly Available Information," and to some users this will be a step too far—expect a wave of profile deletions starting today.
So why, with what's bound to be a storm of controversy and no doubt several lawsuits, is Facebook doing all this? It boils down to just two things: Real time data and money. Facebook's execs know real time data is valuable, and Google's moves to include Twitter's real time feed last week left Facebook embarrassingly in second place. Facebook wants to be the finger on the pulse of the world, and these maneuvers are absolutely designed to enable this. And if Facebook status updates end up being news items or popping up in Google's real time feed, it'll attract visitors to the site, and that earns advertising dollars.
So, basically, Facebook's sold you out, or at least presenting the sale as a fait accompli: Your privacy for a dollar or two.