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In Wake of Privacy Backlash, Facebook Unveils Simpler Privacy Controls

In a press conference held Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced plans for simplified privacy settings, including a single control for user content, more powerful controls for basic information and easy options for turning off site applications. For example, users will now be able to choose who can see their friends and pages.

In a live report from the conference, Nicholas Carson wrote that Zuckerberg explained the company will allow its users to block third-party access.

Zuckerberg is quoted in a New York Times report on the conference as saying, “The net effect of that is that all applications are going to have restricted access to your personal information.”

Near the conference’s end, the company posted a letter from Zuckerberg on its Web site. “The number one thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information,” Zuckerberg wrote. “…Today we're starting to roll out some changes that will make all of these controls a lot simpler.

The simpler privacy controls will be gradually launched at www.facebook.com/privacy, according to Wednesday’s announcement.

In the days and weeks leading up to the world’s largest social networking site’s announcement that it would unveil new privacy settings aimed at what one company official described as an effort to quell the growing frustration around changes that have made more user information available to the Internet at large, privacy protection had become the talk on the street, around dinner tables and at the grocery store. Online privacy and, specifically, Facebook, has become the hot topic for mainstream magazines and newspapers and has moved into prime time, providing fodder for scriptwriters on such popular shows as Criminal Minds.

Amid these discussions of social networking and online privacy concerns, startups have been appearing with an aim at pointing out security flaws, including a new service called Evil, created to call attention to the ways users’ phone numbers can be exposed via Facebook. Then, there are the legal disputes, including a class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. that alleges the social networking site violated the Stored Communications Act by “knowingly, willfully, unlawfully and intentionally without authorization divulged confidential and private information relating to plaintiff and the class' electronic communications.”

And, of course, there is the fledgling movement that urges users to take part in “Quit Facebook Day” to show their frustration with the way the company has addressed personal information and privacy concerns. The company’s current privacy settings have been slammed by critics across the globe as too complicated and, at the same time, skewed in favor of sharing users’ information, prompting Facebook Vice President Chris Cox to describe the past few weeks as “extremely humbling” for the company. With all of this in the works, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the coming changes, confirming the company has made mistakes.

The question for some social networking users, as well as privacy and technology experts, is whether privacy settings like those proposed by Facebook will be enough. In its “Room for Debate” feature for the evening of May 25, for example, The New York Times featured assessments by a range of experts on the question of whether the government should regulate sites like Facebook or stay out of the equation altogether.

While some of the experts suggest the call is not easy to make, and others suggest consumers must be in control of their own data and should not use social networking sites if they’re concerned about privacy, Marcia Hofmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) offered a different solution.

The EFF, she writes, has created its own “bill of privacy rights" that users should demand from social network services,” including rights to informed decision-making and user control and “the right to leave” by deleting specific data or their accounts as a whole.

—    Jennifer L. Saunders


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