Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Facebook addresses privacy concerns...(again)

Do you care who knows what about you? Of course you do; face-to-face, we all share different stuff with friends, family, work colleagues and strangers. It should be the same in social networks. I believe many social media users are guilty of 'unintentional oversharing' and that it is the duty of the social networks to remind people exactly what they are sharing with whom and to give them the opportunity to change their privacy settings easily.

I just read that Facebook now has close to 800 million users. Wow. Not bad in less than 8 years. But how much does Facebook know about you, your friends and your family? Are you completely comfortable with that? Do you trust them not to abuse this trust inadvertently? Or even not to go 'evil'? And do you always know exactly what details you are sharing on Facebook?

Recently a German Regional Privacy Watchdog, the ULD, took the serious step of instructing website owner sites in Schleswig-Holstein to close their Facebook pages and remove 'Like' buttons from  their websites. They have until the end of September to comply, or risk prohibition orders and fines of up to €50,000. Yeah: they can do that. Other regulatory authorities may follow. And not just in Germany.

But wait; check out this video. This new announcement suggests Facebook may, at last, be genuinely responding to users' privacy concerns in a major way. The Social Media giant is changing radically the way Facebook users control their privacy; starting immediately. In the new Facebook, items posted online will each have their own sharing settings, which will determine exactly who can see them i.e. each posting will have its own privacy settings. When users are tagged in a posting (eg a video or a photo) they will be able to confirm or remove their identity before it appears on their profile.

And there's more:

  • Every item on a user's wall will have its own individual privacy options, (e.g. public, friends and custom). You will get the ability to remove a tag of yourself, OR to ask the person who tagged you to remove it, OR to block the tagger
  • Users will be able to tag anyone, not only their Facebook friends. Then that person can choose not to accept the tagged post onto their profile. Users can ask for tags of them to be removed or have the content deleted completely
  • Geographic locations can be added in all versions of Facebook, not just the mobile app
  • The option to see how others see your profile will be added above the news feed
  • When Facebook members share a piece of content for the first time, their default suggestion will be 'public' (instead of the current "everyone" setting). If a user selects a different option, that will then be their default. 
Of all the changes, pre-approving photo tags must be the biggest and should help to make Facebook even more attractive to many users.

Facebook has promised there won't  be any 'unexpected' changes to users' privacy settings as part of the update process. We shall see...

This new policy represents an attempt by Facebook to address persistent criticism about how members manage (or fail to manage) their personal information. Some have speculated that Facebook might be adjusting its privacy controls in preparation for the extension of Facebook to kids under 13; Mark Zuckerberg has previously indicated he thinks this is a good idea. Facebook have officially expressed the hope that the changes will safeguard users and counter malicious tagging, often used by 'cyberbullies' who like to add other people's names to 'dodgy' images.

Is Facebook only making these changes because it believes it must? Indeed some have suggested Mark Zuckerberg doesn't really understand the concept of privacy, since 'his life is his work' and that he thinks the people complaining are being over-sensitive. However this is to underestimate him. Zuckerberg is certainly not naive and he knows he needs to tread carefully here. For instance, Facebook now acknowledges that it is not acceptable to hide privacy settings in out-of-the-way places and hard-to-find 'account settings' menus.

Many will say these changes are long overdue. So why now? Some will suggest the real reason for the new Facebook 'selective sharing' is a response to the 'Circles' feature of the new Google+ social network...Facebook is not exactly waiting around for Google+ to catch up. It has announced its intention to complete 20 acquisitions this year (11 so far).

Marketers are naturally very interested in those 800 million potential customers and the mega 'dwell time' they spend on the Facebook site. If these new changes keep Facebook growing, advertisers will keep spending on Facebook Advertising and investing time in their Facebook pages, generating even more traffic and revenue for the site which would be good news ahead of its much mooted IPO (early in 2012?).

Whatever Facebook's beliefs about its members' privacy rights, I'm sure we can expect more changes from Facebook soon to strengthen its position and to try to see off the new challenger. 800 million is unlikely to be enough for Mr Z...