Facebook gets a privacy nip and tuck

The world's biggest social network has finally unveiled its "simplified" privacy controls. But the changes appear to be entirely cosmetic.

Using a social network is like having lunch once a month with an old friend. It’s not exciting, exactly, but it’s pleasantly predictable. You know what to expect. Then one day she shows up with a nose job.

At first the difference is jarring, but after a while you forget what she used to look like and you mentally delete the old nose from your memories and substitute the new one.

So it goes with social networks. You get used to how you share information, what your friends’ profiles look like, where to find those pictures and videos, etc.  Then, seemingly overnight, the network changes how it displays status updates, or the buttons you click to indicate your likes and dislikes, or how it shares your personal information with the world. It’s jarring, but most of the time you adapt to it, as if it’s always been this way.

Then there’s Facebook, the Michael Jackson of social networks. It’s never satisfied. A nip here, a tuck there, some skin whitener, a glove, a monkey – there’s always something different. And it’s not always an improvement. 

Facebook’s latest augmentation – its “instant personalization” features that generously share your information with third-party Web sites without asking for permission, it’s “Like” button that butters your consumer preferences across the Web – was like a really bad nose job. Think Jennifer Grey or Heidi Montag. That bad.

So now it’s gone back to the surgeon for some emergency repairs. Yesterday, after a month’s worth of drama, Zuckerberg et al announced Facebook’s new “simplified” approach to privacy. And basically said, “Can you please get off our backs now?”

I’m sitting here trying to figure out what Facebook has really changed about its privacy controls. I can’t actually try them out, since the changes haven’t rolled out yet. (Once they do, I won’t have anything to compare the new system against – it’s not like your friend brings her old nose with her to lunch.)

Do the controls seem simpler? Yes. Are they the uber-easy one-click solution some folks have suggested ? Definitely not. Do they represent a major shift in how Facebook approaches your personal information? Not really.

From reading the descriptions, it seems the changes are mainly cosmetic. [Insert rimshot here.] A lot of them aren’t changes at all, though you wouldn’t know it from Zuckerberg’s blog post yesterday or Facebook’s new privacy information page.

The biggest and most significant change: You now get one screen that lets you pick who gets to see your status updates, photos, biography, family information, etc.  That’s a lot better than navigating dozens of screens and 50+ clicks to change all this stuff.

facebook privacy

On the other hand, Facebook still makes your name, profile picture, gender, and the networks you belong to available to “everyone,” whether you like it or not. It also still sets your hometown and activities to be public by default, though you can change this. Your “connections” to pages, however, won’t automatically be made public. (So your membership in the “Fat person trapped inside a skinny person’s body” group will still be our little secret.) 

Today you already have the option of choosing who gets to see your posts and updates – everyone, friends of friends, friends only, or some custom combo. That’s not changing, though apparently Facebook will now remember the last setting you chose and apply it to any future posts.

Facebook adds an “off” button so you can keep all third-party apps from accessing your data (which also means you can’t use the apps any longer, so no more Farmville for you, young man); another control keeps third-party sites from seeing any of your public information. You can do all of these things today, but they require multiple steps. I’ll have to see how exactly how simple they make it before I decide if this is really a worthwhile change.

And that’s about it. Not exactly earth shaking.

Here’s what hasn’t changed: Facebook’s privacy model, which is still opt out. In other words, “we’ll share your information until you tell us not to.” If Facebook really wanted us to believe it cares about our privacy, it would adopt an opt in model (“we’ll ask permission before we share”). I didn’t actually expect that to happen, but it would be nice. 

The other thing that hasn’t changed: It’s still not easy to delete your Facebook account. You have to jump through multiple flaming hoops, on roller skates, carrying a bucket of gasoline. So if Facebook is planning to make that process easier, it’s certainly keeping it a secret.

Also: No mea culpas, no apologies, no nuthin’. Because Facebook doesn’t really believe it’s done anything wrong. It’s just getting its arms twisted. Which becomes obvious when you read what Zuckerberg (or, more likely, his ghostwriter) added near the end of his post:

“Finally and perhaps most importantly, I am pleased to say that with these changes the overhaul of Facebook's privacy model is complete. If you find these changes helpful, then we plan to keep this privacy framework for a long time. That means you won't need to worry about changes. (Believe me, we're probably happier about this than you are.)

Of course we'll continue responding to your feedback and making things simpler. But after our recent changes we're now done migrating away from the old network-based privacy model. Our new model will help the Facebook community grow to millions of more people around the world.”

This is Zuckerberg’s way of saying “We’re done. This is the last time we’re going to change our privacy settings just because a few bloggers won’t quit whining.”

My question: Is this the last time Facebook's going to change what it does with our personal information? I wouldn’t bet on it. Like Michael or Heidi, Facebook seems addicted to augmentation.

Author Dan Tynan has never had implants, no matter what you may have read on the InterWebs. When not grousing about Facebook, he tends his snark garden at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild). Follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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