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Facebook truly respects its users' privacy. For now, at least.

May 26, 2010 |  5:35 pm

ZuckerbergMy colleague Patt Morrison's recent post about Facebook reminded me of the famously cynical remark that former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy made in 1999: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."  As a user of the World's Most Ginormous Social Network (but not while I'm at work, boss! -- unless it's for reporting purposes, of course), I have to disagree with Patt's premise. The latest outcry about Facebook's treatment of personal information wasn't spawned by users' efforts to maintaining their privacy -- Facebook is for sharing information about oneself, after all. Besides, as a new study shows, the public's concern about online privacy is declining. Instead, the hubbub stemmed more from Facebook users' desire to choose whom to share with and what to reveal. The new controls  the company unveiled Wednesday will help on that score, but whether that signals a real change of heart at Facebook is anybody's guess.

The fundamental problem at Facebook has been the site's creeping conversion of private data into public knowledge. For a brilliant visualization of the changes, see Matt McKeon's damning chart. For many users, these unilateral data grabs amounted to a bait and switch, akin to a credit card company raising its interest rate after customers run up large balance.

The new privacy features that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Wednesday walk the company back from some of its previous excesses. No longer will users be compelled to reveal to the Web the names of all their Facebook friends, among other bits of personal information from their profiles. Only their names, photos and network affiliations will be freely available, although they'll have to change their default privacy settings to hide other aspects of their profiles.

The controls also make it easier for people to stop Facebook from handing over their information to third parties, either directly or through Facebook applications. The ACLU praised the change but complained that the tools were too "crude"  -- either no applications and sites will have access to their data, or they all will.

The site's decision to give users more control over their pages and posts doesn't necessarily reflect a change in how it values users' data, however. As Larry Dignan of ZDNet observed, Facebook goes through regular cycles of sharing user information more aggressively, feeling the backlash, then retreating a bit -- but not all the way. Zuckerberg reminded users Wednesday that Facebook's purpose in life is to reveal things about its users:

Some people think that people want to make information as private as possible. That’s just not what users are telling us. We care a lot about privacy, I want to be careful not to be misquoted, but people use the service because they like sharing information. As long as they have good controls over that, I really think that’s where the world is going.

He also noted that Facebook users seem less concerned about what's happening to their data than about being charged to use the site. That may be true. Still, if Facebook hopes to avoid having the federal government dictate its privacy policy, Zuckerberg should abandon the act-first-and-ask-for-forgiveness-later approach to users' content. Just because they want some people to see it, that doesn't mean they want Facebook to pick the audience.

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Credit: Reuters / Robert Galbraith

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