Facebook's New Privacy Rules Are Simple and Smart

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced new, simple privacy controls today after weeks of withering criticism and multiple reports of users deleting their profiles. Zuckerberg told reporters on a conference call that he agreed with critics that the company's privacy controls had become arcane and damaging to Facebook's chief mission: helping its 400 million members connect and share information.

"People want to connect," Zuckerberg said. "And the best way is to give them control. We really do believe in privacy."

The new privacy control, which will roll out in the next few weeks, is a grid that lets you share various types of information across three categories: everyone, friends of friends only, or friends only. The recommended default (as captured in a screen shot below) would make posts and profiles public to everyone; personal information like photos and birthdays public to friends of friends; and private info like email addresses available to friends only.

Another privacy lets you sever ties with Facebook applications and third parties with a click, rather than opting out on a per-application and per-party basis. More specific controls are available in the custom settings. In sum, it's a good move for Facebook provided that they don't tinker with settings (as they have three times in the last seven months).

"This is the end of the overhaul that we're doing," Zuckerberg said. "One of the big takeaways is, don't make any privacy changes for a long time."

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Much of the talk tried to put Facebook's new changes in historical context. As Facebook has grown and added features, Zuckerberg argued, it has sometimes struggled to balance two missions: to help people share information across networks and to give them granular controls over how they share they share that information.

His answer to a question about advertising was surprising.

"There's this big misperception that we're making these changes because it's good for advertising," he said. "Anybody who knows me knows that's crazy. There's this idea that if people share info more openly it's good for ad targeting. It's the opposite."

Here was his reasoning: Facebook shows advertisements to users whose private information indicates they might be interested in the product. For example, if LiveNation wants to sell Coldplay tickets, and I say I like Coldplay, Facebook might show me LiveNation ads by my profile. If Facebook makes that information public, Zuckerberg said, it loses proprietary control over the information. The company's incentive, he said, was to be jealous over its users' data.

"We really don't think about revenue at all," Zuckerberg said in a moment that slightly strained credibility. "When we're building platform, it factors in like not at all."

Facebook might not care about its potential impact on targeted advertising and the rest of the Internet, but maybe it should. First, as Gawker's Ryan Tate points out, it sort of has a fiduciary responsibility to think about revenue. The Open Graph protocal, which collects already public information such as users' "likes" throughout the Web, sounds like it could create living, breathing semantic memory of its users' preferences. This has fascinating implications. Imagine browsing CNN on your smart phone downtown, and a mobile ad pops up with a happy hour coupon for a restaurant you said you liked on Yelp. Or imagine a better news aggregation site, a waterfall of links with all of the articles "liked" by friends who self-identify as conservative on Facebook.

"We listened to the feedback [on privacy concerns] and we agree with it," Zuckerberg said today. Good thing, that. But as the company has grown from a lively yearbook, to a 21st Yellow Pages, to an Web-wide ecosystem of "likes," it should think about ways to balance its privacy mandate with its pubic capability to do amazing things for the larger Internet community.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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