Social network giant Facebook, long criticized for failing to implement adequate privacy controls and for adopting a cavalier attitude towards the sensitive issue, is now trying to appease its users by streamlining how they manage and share their personal information.
Facebook has struggled for long to strike a fine balance between giving users too little control over privacy and giving them too much (out of fear that they wouldn't share anything). Privacy issues and problems of unintentional oversharing have haunted Facebook for long as anything posted up on Facebook is displayed for the world at large to see. Horror stories of contents not meant to be seen by family members, friends or co-workers are not new.
However, it's not that Facebook did not give its users any privacy controls - it's just that the controls were confusing and constantly changing and privacy advocates felt Facebook was pushing people to share more than they wanted or understood.
Pvacy advocates also complained that Facebook has done nothing to address their concern about sharing location. Facebook's cavalier attitude towards the problem only gave rise to a plethora of privacy-related lawsuits and government-initiated investigations.
But the emergence of Google+, the search giant's new social networking site, Facebook has been feeling the heat bceause Google has specifically attempted to address the privacy problem by introducing Google+ Circles that allows users to separate their contacts in customized groups.
Unlike in Facebook where everybody is a friend including your parents, your ex-wife, your boss or your boss' cat, Circles users can group their contacts under specific names such as Family, Friends, Acquaintances, Co-workers, in fact, anything at all. The compartmentalization allows Google+ users to choose how they would like to share any information - with a contact in a circle, all the contacts in the circle or all the circles.
This has resulted in an exodus of Facebook users, who happily migrated to Google+.
Not surprisingly, Facebook has been forced to give up its high-handedness and announce changes Tuesday.
Facebook said in a blog post its users can now choose whether the photos, comments or any information they add on their profile pages should be viewed by their Facebook friends, a specific group of friends, or everyone who has access to the Internet. The extent of privacy will be indicated by icons that will replace the current, more complicated padlock menu. For instance, Public, i.e. anyone who is online can see what you are posting, is represented by a globe while friends is represented by a pair of heads.
You have told us that 'who can see this?' could be clearer across Facebook, so we have made changes to make this more visual and straightforward, Chris Cox, Facebook's vice president of product, wrote on the Facebook Blog.
The new privacy controls have been extended to cover information like users' phone numbers, hometowns and even hobbies and interests.
Minors, however, will not be able to publicly share content - they'll be limited to friends or friends of friends.
Till now, users were forced to hunt for privacy settings hidden in obscure menus and adjust privacy settings in a separate profile page. Consequently, many users complained they could not remember later what those settings were.
However, by introducing the new, simplified privacy controls (which would be implemented on Thursday), Facebook has indicated that it's taking the privacy issues faced by its users seriously.
Facebook has also attempted to eliminate the problem of malicious tagging, which is often used by cyberbullies who add other people's names to unpleasant, compromising images. Now, when users are tagged in a posting - such as a photograph or video - they will have the option to confirm or remove their identity before it appears on their profile. The user also has the ability to remove tags of self, ask the person who tagged you to remove it, or even block the tagger.
Social network experts feel Facebook's new feature will encourage its users to share more as they will now have control over who sees what.
Facebook did not say whether its decision was influenced by Google+, but Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, is quite certain that Google+ had some role to play.
Although they've denied it, there can't be any doubt that the launch of Google+ may have influenced some of the design decisions here, Cluley wrote on the Naked Security blog.
The new controls, Cluley said, are like how Google+ operates, with users being able to choose at the time of post exactly which individuals or groups of friends (known within Google+ as circles) they wish to share information with.
Agrees Justin Brookman, the director of the consumer privacy project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who was consulted by Facebook on the newest changes. This is Facebook competing on privacy, Brookman said. People responded well to Google's very controlled, granular settings.
We welcome Facebook's efforts to give users more control over their privacy because it helps to improve the overall web experience. With Google+ we're creating a new and different approach to make sharing on the Web more like sharing in the real world, a Google spokeswoman said in a statement.
Meanwhile, be warned - the first time new Facebook users share a piece of information, the privacy setting will be public by default. If the users select another option, that will become their default in future.
What do you think? Has Facebook privacy features actually improved or are these cosmetic changes? How does Facebook privacy settings now compare to Google+? Is Facebook scared of people defecting to Google+? Leave your comments below.