In Facebook’s vision of the web, users no longer would be alone and anonymous. Sites would reflect users’ tastes and interests—as expressed on the online social network—and users wouldn’t have to fish around for news and songs that interest them.
Standing in the way, however, is growing concern about privacy from Facebook users, a large percentage of whom are high school and college-age students. Most recently, users have complained that the site forced them to share personal details with the rest of the online world or have them removed from Facebook profiles altogether.
Responding to users’ concerns, Facebook on May 26 announced that it’s simplifying its privacy controls and applying them retroactively, so users can protect the status updates and photos they have posted in the past.
“A lot of people are upset with us,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged at a news conference at Facebook’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters.
The changes came after Facebook rolled out a slew of new features in April that spread its reach to the broader web. Among them was a program called “instant personalization” that draws information from a person’s profile to customize sites such as the music service Pandora. Some users found it creepy, not cool.
Privacy groups have complained to federal regulators, and some people threatened to quit the site. Even struggling MySpace jumped in to capitalize on its rival’s bad press by announcing a “new, simpler privacy setting.”
To address complaints that its settings were getting too complex, Facebook now will give users the option of applying the same preferences to all their content, so that with one click you can decide whether to share things with just “friends” or with everyone.
For those who found it complicated to prevent outside web sites and applications from gaining access to Facebook data, there’s now a way to do so in a couple of clicks.
It’s not clear whether the changes will quell the unease among Facebook users, which has threatened to slow the site’s breakneck evolution from a scrappy college network to an internet powerhouse with nearly a half-billion people.
“They’ve lost the users’ trust. That’s the problem,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group. “In the earlier days, there was time to regain it. It’s not so clear now. I think it’s getting more serious than making changes and moving on.”
Some of Facebook’s loudest critics offered cautious praise but indicated the young company will need to do more to prove it cares about privacy.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called it a “significant first step that Facebook deserves credit for,” but added he’d still prefer that Facebook require users to actively turn on sharing with outside sites, rather than having sharing be the default setting.
For some users, the problem has been that the company has changed its privacy settings so often that keeping up with them became too much. Before Facebook’s May 26 announcement, Craig Mather, a 28-year-old graduate student in Portland, Ore., was already complaining of having to adjust his privacy settings every time Facebook comes up with a new plan.
“It puts us on our guard, where we feel like we are trying to plug a leak,” he said.