Facebook succumbs to pressure for more privacy

TORONTO – Mark Zuckerberg blinked.

On Wednesday, the founder and chief executive of Facebook bowed to mounting pressure from angry users and government regulators across North America and announced a new set of simplified privacy controls for the world’s largest social network.

After implementing a number of controversial changes over the past six months to open up the personal information of Facebook users to software developers and the broader Web, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is facing a growing backlash from some of its users and privacy watchdogs who say the site’s privacy controls are difficult to understand.

For the 26-year-old Zuckerberg, a man who believes that "a world that’s more open and connected is a better world," Facebook’s new user controls – which allow users to easily understand and limit the amount of information that is shared with friends and outside software developers – represent an acknowledgment that the social-media giant was evolving at a pace that made many of its nearly 500 million users uncomfortable.

"The settings have gotten complex and it has become hard for people to use them to effectively control their settings," Zuckerberg said during a press event on Wednesday.

"We wanted to make it really easy to change privacy in just a couple of clicks."

As part of the changes announced on Wednesday – which will begin rolling out to Facebook users immediately – users will now have access to a single web page that allows them to decide if they want to share information with their friends, the friends of their friends or everyone on the web. Those settings will be applied to everything users have posted to Facebook in the past and will also apply to any new services Facebook rolls out in the future.

As well, Facebook said it would be altering its user directory – which users can use to find their friends – to pare back and show only minimal information about a user, including the person’s name profile picture and gender.

However, perhaps the biggest change to Facebook’s policies is one which will now allow users to prevent their information being shared with third party software developers who build games and quiz applications that run inside Facebook, such as Farmville or Mafia Wars.

Facebook riled some of its users with the roll out of new privacy controls last December, which were intended to afford users greater control over their information but wound up altering the site’s default settings to make some users’ information more open.

However, the online outcry over the site’s privacy settings reached a fever pitch last month after Zuckerberg announced plans for a new technology that connects Facebook user accounts to third-party websites, like Yelp and Pandora.

Still, Facebook’s site remains more open today than it was after the company agreed to make a series of changes to its privacy policies in the wake of a 14-month investigation into the site by the Office of Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, according to assistant privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

"With the changes that were announced by Facebook in December and in April, I think Facebook took two big steps forward in terms of opening up the platform, and I think now they’ve taken one step back with these new changes," she said.

Denham said the Privacy Commissioner’s office will be taking a closer look at Facebook’s privacy control settings in the coming weeks, but that the site’s default settings – which still favour social sharing over privacy – remain a concern.

For software developers and advertisers who rely on the personal information and web habits of Facebook users, the company’s new policy of allowing users to opt out of the Facebook platform could have consequences.

"Make no bones about it, this is a potential disaster for developers," said Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ont.

"In one fell swoop, Facebook has devalued any application on the Facebook platform. With the click of a mouse, any user can render any application developed for Facebook useless and thus valueless."

Levy said the future of Facebook depends on convincing the site’s users that it is in their best interest to open up and share their information, on their own terms, online.

"The onus is absolutely on Facebook to market to users the value of its application universe, to get them to once again believe that there’s value in participating and it’s not simply an annoyance that allows uncontrolled developers access to their private data," he said.

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