Facebook responds to Google+ criticism with privacy design changes

Facebook is making a series of design changes to the site to make it clearer to users who can see the content that they post, an issue Google has been criticizing Facebook about since it launched its own social network, Google+, in June.

“You have told us that ‘who can see this?’ could be clearer across Facebook, so we have made changesto make this more visual and straightforward,” Facebook said in a blogpost on Tuesday.

The changes affect your profile page, your posts, and taggingand adds a new addition: A do-over feature if you change your mindabout who sees your post.

The main change is that Facebook will now display the intended audiencefor a photo, a text post, a tag or any other piece of content rightnext to it, or “inline” as stated in the blog post. Until now, thosecontrols have been on a separate Settings section of the profile.

“Your profile should feel like your home on the web — you should neverfeel like stuff appears there that you don’t want, and you should neverwonder who sees what’s there,” the post reads.

Dropdown menu
Now, every piece of content on a user’s profile will have a drop-downmenu that lists its current access level, and other available optionsfor changing it. These include sharing something only with people onone’s “friends” list, with “friends of friends,” with “everyone” on oroff Facebook, or with a “custom” hand-picked list of people. The”everyone” option is changing its name to “public” because Facebook hasdetermined the word “public” is more descriptive of that broad level ofaccess.

These “inline” access options will also be added to the content-postingbox so that they are more easily accessible to people when they’re posting new photos, videos orwritten messages.

“This dropdown menu will be expanding over time to include smallergroups of people you may want to share with, like co-workers, FriendLists you’ve created, and Groups you’re a member of. These will make iteasy to quickly select exactly the audience you want for any post,”Facebook’s blog post said.

A feature Facebook has had for years, which lets users see howtheir profile looks to another user, is gaining a more prominentplacement in the profile page to make it more easily accessible andpromote its usage.

“Do-over” option
Facebook is also introducing a sort of “do-over” feature. If you changeyour mind about who should see a posting after youpost it, you can change that with the drop down menu, even after it hasbeen posted.

Tagging has also been altered. Previously, photos and postings in whichusers were tagged automatically appeared on their profile pages. Nowthe user can approve or reject a tagged item before it appears on theirprofile page. They can’t, however, block the tagged item from appearingon another user’s pages.

Tagging has been expanded a bit, too. Users now can tag “friends” ornon-friends, as well as pages, whether they “like” them or not. Inaddition, options for removing tags have been clarified.

Since launching Google+, Google has been claimingthat its site offers a simpler, more effective way to share contentthan Facebook. Google has said that Facebook’s privacy and content-sharingcontrols are too complex and inconvenient, leading users to often shareinadvertently with a larger audience than intended.

While the jury is still out on whether Google+’s Circles feature indeed offers an improvement over Facebook’s functionality, Facebook’s move today clearly seems motivated to address any competitive advantageGoogle may be trying to get with Circles.

“Even some of the terminology which Facebook is now using is adirect copy of Google+,” says Graham Cluley, a senior technologyconsultant with Sophos, a cyber security software maker. “For instance,you no longer share with everyone, you share with ‘public.'”

“This is a reaction to Google+,” he said. “That’s not abad thing. That’s how competitiveness develops things. Facebook shouldbe applauded from that point of view.”

Google+ Vice President of Product Bradley Horowitz said Google deservespart of the credit for Facebook’s changes.

“I think it’s good for users, which is exciting for us. The reason wewake up in the morning is to build great experiences for users, and Ithink what they did was familiar and good for users,” he said during awebcast interview with Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media, on Tuesdayafternoon.

Privacy controls
“That’s another impact Google+ can have in the world: raising the baron what the expectations and standards around privacy should be, sothat’s a great outcome,” Horowitz added.

Industry analyst Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence saidthat while Google+ may have been part of the motivation for thechanges, Facebook has heard similar criticism over the years from othersources, including its own users.

Whatever the reason, Facebook is hitting all the right notes with thetweaks. “What they are doing is very good: making all the privacycontrols more explicit and available on a more granular basis,”Sterling said.

These privacy controls have been “kindof hidden” in the Settings section, and so have not been used as muchor as wisely as they should be, he said. “These changes are overdue,welcome and very positive for users,” Sterling said.

However, at least one security expert maintains the socialnetwork should have gone further to protect users’ privacy.

As good as the new changes are, Facebook missed a real opportunity toadvance privacy on its network, Cluley asserts. “A lot ofthese things are quite cosmetic,” Cluley says. “They could have donemore about general privacy and safety on Facebook.”

“Some of the things they’ve done here are great, and they’re a step inthe right direction,” he added, “but I worry that there are morefundamental opportunities they could have taken which they ignored withthis revamp.”

One of those opportunities cited by Cluley was to put more “opt-in”choices in the Facebook system, instead of requiring users to “opt-out”of its offerings. “They’ve put a nice varnish over Facebook,” he said.”But what we haven’t got is anything which says, ‘From now on, wheneverwe introduce a new feature, we’re not going to share your informationwithout your express agreement.”

It will be interesting to see what impact these changes have onGoogle+, which is still in a limited, invitation-only beta period, hesaid. The Circles content-sharing feature has been considered one ofGoogle+’s best weapons against Facebook, Sterling said.

It’s estimated that Google+ has about 25 million users, while Facebook has in excess of 750 million.

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