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Facebook's New Privacy Policies: The Good News

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Facebook has long been accused of: 1. giving users too little control over their privacy and security settings, and 2. making it difficult for users to understand -- and to follow over time -- what those controls actually entail. With Facebook's announcement of new privacy controls, it looks like things are taking a turn for the better for Facebook's 1 billion-plus users.

Facebook introduced new privacy controls Wednesday. The changes, said Facebook, target three main goals: to bring controls in context where you share, to help you understand what appears where as you use Facebook, and to provide tools to help you act on content that you don't like.

"We believe that the better you understand who can see the things you share, the better your experience on Facebook can be," said Samual W. Lessin, a director of product at Facebook, in a blog post.

The new tools include:

-- Privacy shortcuts: A new toolbar will enable users to change privacy and timeline controls such as "Who can see my stuff" and "Who can contact me" from where they are working. This will make it easier for users to change these settings without having to go to a separate set of pages.

--App permissions: These new controls provide a more granular experience when granting permissions. For example, said Lessin, "a person can grant a music app the ability to read their public profile and friends list to personalize their experience in the app, but decline to allow it to post what they listen to Facebook on their behalf." Not all apps will use this model, however.

--Updated activity log: Facebook's new activity log will give users more control over what content is seen and when. Users can review their own activity, and Facebook provides new ways to sort information, such as by photos they have been tagged in and have hidden from their timelines.

--Request and removal tool: Facebook will make it easier for users to request that photos and other content they have been tagged in be removed.

[ Will better privacy controls make people enjoy Facebook more? See Housework Outranks Facebook On Happiness Meter. ]

Security consultant Brad Causey said the new controls will go a long way toward reducing what he calls "accidental privacy issues."

"One of the biggest contributors to privacy problems prior to this update was the ambiguous nature of the channels in which Facebook events were published," Causey told The BrainYard. "Each place, such as your news feed or your timeline, had a different privacy setting. This created some confusion on where your posts or events might end up, and what the privacy settings might be on those locations."

But Facebook giveth, and Facebook taketh away. With the new controls, users can no longer prevent themselves from being found via the main search tool. Facebook said few people used this option, and that it didn't prevent people from finding others in other ways across the site.

One of the most welcome changes is in-product education. Facebook will offer a series of messages that will help users understand how Facebook works and the implications of certain actions. For example, said Lessin in his blog, Facebook has created a series of messages to help users understand, in context, that the content you hide from your timeline may still appear in your news feed, search and other places.

"These new changes place the privacy implications and controls right where they need to be in order to be seen and understood," said Causey. "They will also provide a new level of granularity that will allow you to treat each post and photo separately. This will have a positive impact on the privacy of users' data on Facebook."

InformationWeek columnist Thomas Claburn posted a great piece on The BrainYard about the growing power that social networks are taking on, and the blurring of lines between editorial and advertising. His column prompted an active discussion in the comments section, including a debate about Facebook users' general level of knowledge on how the network uses their personal data and content. Whatever the true percentage of truly savvy users, Facebook's addition of in-context guidance will certainly help those who don't fully understand the implications of some of their actions on social networks (assuming they pay attention to the guidance).

The announcement of Facebook's new privacy policies comes after Facebook allowed users to vote on the changes, but the number of people voting fell short of the one-third needed to make any vote binding.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

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