Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Facebook Privacy: Good but Suspicious

After much suspense and rumor, Facebook finally revealed what they have been in lock-down for at their event in Palo Alto. Other than the possible site redesign (as if the site has not been redesigned enough in the past year), a number of amazing features have been added, some of which should probably have been implemented months ago. The new Facebook now has a "download your information" feature, another enhanced privacy settings panel, and a new groups feature.

The download your information feature allows a user to download a ZIP file containing everything about them stored on Facebook. Rolling out to users today, you can download your information from the Account Settings menu. While this is all fine and well, why is Facebook doing this? The motive behind this new service is probably data portability, something Google and other companies have been preaching for a long time, but exactly why would anybody want data portability from Facebook? Google allows you to take your email and information off of Google because there is actually an alternative to their online services. Facebook, on the other hand, is not the same. Nobody is going to export their data off of Facebook and upload it onto MySpace, and this is ignoring the fact that your information file is probably not in a format that can be easily parsed by other sites. (What's really funny is that the email client Facebook uses in their demonstration video is Gmail.) In my opinion, it looks as if Facebook is just looking to up their reputation in the face of major privacy concerns from their users. It should probably be noted that deleting your Facebook is still just as difficult as it was before.

The next item they added was an "enhanced" privacy panel. The new panel is actually useful because not only does it allow you to very easily remove numerous unwanted applications from your profile as well as block users and applications, but you can disable Facebook's instant personalization features, something that was very controversial just a couple of months ago. Furthermore, you can control what information games can use when personalizing your social networking experience. However, there are a number of suspicious features in the new privacy panel. Aside from the fact that you can only access it by clicking a small link in the lower left-hand corner of the main privacy panel, the wording in the panel is peculiar. Whenever you change your setting in favor of privacy, whether is be disabling instant personalization or removing applications, Facebook makes sure to present you with a confirmation box, explaining how disabling it will not give you the "richer, more connected experience" that you would get by sharing more of your information. It's almost as if Facebook is saying, here, now you can hide your information, but we really really do not want you to. So it is still is success that there are not more privacy features, but there is no sign Facebook is giving this control away willingly.

Finally, there is also a new groups feature. The new groups is an exact copy of aspects from Diaspora. They allow you to post status updates, photos, etc. to a select group of friends. It's like you have your own set of social sub-networks that you can choose what to post where. This is probably the biggest advance Facebook has made during their lock-down, because having this amount of control over who sees what is sort of the final step toward complete privacy on a social network. The first step was controlling what the public can see, the second step was controlling what your friends and friends of friends can see, and now you can control what your individual groups of peers can see. Facebook really deserves an applause for this, but considering Google Buzz and Diaspora both already have this feature, I have to say Facebook is a little late, but better late than never.

Facebook has definitely made a step in the right direction. With new privacy controls and supposed data portability, it seems they are finally responding to the months of privacy concerns. And I definitely cannot wait to see how users react when we get that new Facebook design that is coming soon. However, I do not believe their motives for these changes are altruistic, and I am still wary of what Facebook has in store for us.

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