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Facebook's New Privacy Paradigm: Boon or Bust?

Facebook recently announced significant changes to how information will flow on the social network, impacting users’ privacy in both positive and (potentially) negative ways.

First, the good news: as hinted back in June, Facebook will be implementing a new feature giving users more control to specify the relative visibility of each bit of information they publish.

Currently, when you click the “Share” button to publish your status, upload photos and videos, or share links, who gets to view that content is governed by settings tucked away under a cavalcade of menus (Settings -> Privacy Settings -> Profile -> Status and Links). With the planned enhancement, users will be able to click a little lock icon in the status update bar each time they post something, and choose precisely who is allowed to see that particular piece of content (“Everyone,” “Friends of Friends,” etc.).

Presumably this can still be defaulted to a standard setting, and it remains to be seen how users take advantage of this feature. Nonetheless, I applaud Facebook for finally providing users this granular level of control.

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Next, Facebook also announced it will be eliminating “networks”. At its most fundamental level, the flow of information on Facebook revolved around “networks” defined by one’s school, company, or geographic region. Privacy settings were frequently set to make information visible to anyone within your network – expanding from your friends to include anyone living in Milwaukee, or who attended the University of Notre Dame, for example.

However, Facebook now notes a concern that some networks are quite large (China, for example) and that having privacy settings set to such a large population doesn’t do much good: those who select “Friends and Networks” in the sample image above might inadvertently be sharing information with many more people than they really intended. In response to this concern, Facebook will simply be eliminating these networks from the platform, along with the ability to use them as a demarcation for controlling one’s personal information flows. As a result, the options for who can view one’s content will shrink to “Everyone,” “Friends of Friends,” or “Friends”.

On its face, this seems like a positive move, but the key question is what happens to all those privacy settings currently set to a now-eliminated network?

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Recognizing this obvious problem, Facebook also announced it is revamping and simplifying its privacy settings, and will be prompting all users to visit and adjust their settings in response to these structural changes to how Facebook works. Most notably, Facebook will make suggestions as to how to set your new privacy settings “based on your current level of privacy”.

Previously, Facebook shared a prototype Transition Tool which might be used to help users decide how to set their new privacy settings:

Here we see a recommended setting where everyone will be able to see a user’s “Basic Info” (profile photos, gender, hometown, biographical details, work and education information, etc), as well as all one’s status updates (unless they make specific changes as allowed above). Other information tends to be more restricted to friends of friends, or only friends.

How Facebook intends to take my current privacy settings into consideration when it makes these recommendations remains unclear, and as you might guess, Facebook wields great power in the ability to influence what setting users ultimately decide.

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Herein lies the curious nature of these announced changes. Recall my (informal) Laws of Social Networking:

  1. Promoting the open flow of personal information allows maximum profitability
  2. Allowing user control over their information flows is counter to profit maximization
  3. Provide some privacy controls, but make it hard

Facebook’s elimination of regional networks because they were too big — and thereby allowing the sharing of information with too large a population — appears to contradict the first law. The 2nd law is challenged by Facebook’s providing new control over individual status updates, while Facebook’s attempt to simplify and recommend privacy settings to users contradicts law #3.

Now, I still stand by my Laws, and at the end of the day, Facebook still is committed to the philosophy that, no matter what, information wants to be shared among everyone. So, how do we explain these proactive changes from a company that has so famously released systems encourage oversharing, and only make privacy changes when the pressure mounts (i.e., News Feed, Beacon, etc)?

The optimist in me views this as a result of the influence of new privacy-minded individuals within Facebook, like Tim Sparapani, a privacy specialist — previously with the American Civil Liberties Union — who was recently hired as Facebook’s new director of public policy.

The pessimist in me sees all this — like others — as just another way for Facebook to fool users into thinking they have new control over their information, all the while recommending settings that simply encourage the continued, if not increased, flow of personal information.

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