Pulling an about-Facebook on privacy

By requiring that each of its 350 million users to set their own privacy settings -- and making the process easy to understand -- Facebook is trying to part of the solution.

This week, as I normally do, I logged into Facebook -- which, I swear, I only use for business networking and research (and not countless hours of playing Mafia Wars. Hear that, boss, GCN Lab Director John Breeden?). But this time I was greeted by a pop-up window that forced me to review and alter my privacy settings.

Until recently, the words “Facebook” and “privacy” weren't ones you would hear in the same sentence, unless that sentence also included the term “lack of” or “class-action lawsuit.” Facebook has long been criticized for having overly complex and sometimes inadequate privacy controls, mostly because they were able to appeal to advertisers about how all of your FB friends were told about every little thing you did.

But lately, the folks at Facebook decided to overhaul their privacy settings. Specifically, they made them easier to understand and flexible enough to let a user decide exactly who can see a certain part of a profile or the result of a certain activity. On top of that, they forced every single user to approve or change these settings when logging in for the first time after the policy was implemented.

With Facebook now numbering more than 350 million users, this is definitely the first time that so many people had to make privacy decisions for a single online service. Heck, this may be the most people that ever had to do the same thing online ever!

Facebook is also making an effort to make a user’s privacy setting easier to understand. On the privacy settings page, you can see exactly who will be notified when you post an update, use a certain third-party application, or upload content. If your entire Friends list is too big, you can separate your friends into distinct groups, further isolating specific activity.

Personally, I applaud this move on Facebook’s part. Privacy is difficult enough to maintain on the Internet without the largest social networking site making it worse. With these new settings and explanations, Facebook is definitely trying to be part of the solution.

And speaking of Facebook, if anyone knows where I can get a hold of some Illegal Transaction Records for Mafia Wars, I’d appreciate it. (But, please, don’t tell the boss.)