How Facebook Should Fix Its Privacy Problem

The controversy surrounding Facebook’s latest privacy policy changes was a bit overblown — critics overstated their case (with one calling the firm “the most unethical or clueless Internet company in the world,” though most people simply reverted to their previous settings with a few clicks), and the site sure didn’t help things with the disastrous PR move of suggesting its users lie as a method of privacy control.

All that noise may have drowned out the abiding and fundamental forces driving this conflict: Facebook wants its content to become more public, so that its wider searchability across the open web draws more users to its site. That makes a lot of people nervous and threatens the trust that Facebook considers key to its success. To satisfy their privacy concerns, users will have to take a more sophisticated and hands-on approach to managing their accounts, and that means Facebooking is going to get more complicated. “Those who want a private experience on Facebook will have to work harder at it,” as Julia Angwin put it in the Wall Street Journal.

However, there are ways that Facebook could — and should — make things easier on its users. For example, one of the lingering and legitimate complaints that critics have of the new privacy policies is that, while people can easily reject the new settings, they won’t always know what their friends’ settings are. Before you comment on a friend’s status or photo, you’ll wonder: Will what I write be public or not? Facebook could try giving us cues to help, like color-coding the boxes around public material. (Red all over will mean exactly that.)

Facebook could also try making clearer the distinction between communicating and broadcasting that’s at the heart of the latest controversy. Twitter, by unambiguously focusing on public broadcasting of messages from day one, never had to beg its users to make their data more public. Facebook can do both but shouldn’t blur the line between the two. Its decision to add an optional “Everyone” setting to automatically broadcast existing content forms like status updates will invite embarrassing mistakes — like a “Reply to All” office-email gaffe on a global scale. Instead, Facebook should keep status updates as the internal communication tool and use another field entirely, with its own send button, for public broadcasting. Folks who want to broadcast as their primary means of communication could customize their pages to replace their status update field with their broadcast field. One way for Facebook to achieve this dual function is through further integration with Twitter. Another is for Facebook to develop or acquire its own Twitter clone.

From a privacy perspective, Facebook content is becoming more public all the time, simply because users are amassing such large lists of friends. The average user has 130 friends, Facebook says, but it’s common to have several hundred. And even though Facebook policy lets you divide those friends into categories and control which get access to which information, lots of people don’t bother, and so they have to be careful what they write on their pages. Angwin argues that “Facebook is making friending obsolete,” but of course, Facebook isn’t doing it; users are. That’s chiefly a function of the newness of social networks and the public’s lack of experience with them. So while Facebook works to better understand its users’ privacy concerns, people are going to have to work harder at managing their increasingly complex online social lives.

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What should Facebook do to solve its privacy problems?
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