April 19, 2010 | By Kurt Opsahl

Updated: Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information

Once upon a time, Facebook could be used simply to share your interests and information with a select small community of your own choosing. As Facebook's privacy policy once promised, "No personal information that you submit to Facebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings."

How times have changed.

Today, Facebook removed its users' ability to control who can see their own interests and personal information. Certain parts of users' profiles, "including your current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests" will now be transformed into "connections," meaning that they will be shared publicly. If you don't want these parts of your profile to be made public, your only option is to delete them.

The example Facebook uses in its announcement is a page for "Cooking." Previously, you could list "cooking" as an activity you liked on your profile, but your name would not be added to any formal "Cooking" page. (Under the old system, you could become a "fan" of cooking if you wanted). But now, the new Cooking page will publicly display all of the millions of people who list cooking as an activity.

Cooking is not very controversial or privacy-sensitive, and thus makes for a good example from Facebook's perspective. Who would want to conceal their interest in cooking? Of course, the new program will also create public lists for controversial issues, such as an interest in abortion rights, gay marriage, marijuana, tea parties and so on.

But even for an innocuous interest like cooking, it’s not clear how this change is meant to benefit Facebook's users. An ordinary human is not going to look through the list of Facebook's millions of cooking fans. It's far too large. Only data miners and targeted advertisers have the time and inclination to delve that deeply.

There is one loophole — tell Facebook you're under 18. Under Facebook's policy for minors, your interests would only be visible for friends and family and verified networks. You would not be publicly listed on these new connection pages. However, this only works as you set up a new account.

The new connections features benefit Facebook and its business partners, with little benefit to you. But what are you going to do about it? Facebook has consistently ignored demands from its users to create an easy "exit plan" for migrating their personal data to another social networking website, even as it has continued — one small privacy policy update after another — to reduce its users' control over their information.

The answer: Let Facebook hear your frustration. Last December, when Facebook announced a new round of privacy degradations, it provoked a potent combination of public outrage, legal threats, and government investigations. In response, Facebook listened to some criticism and walked-back a few of its changes. Now it will allow users to adjust the visibility of information in their profiles, such as hiding your friend list from other friends. If you want Facebook to walk back these new changes too, let them know how you feel.

Update: A few people have contacted us by email and through Facebook to ask for clarification about this post. They're confused by the language in Facebook's announcement, which describes the new changes as "opt-in".

The issue with Facebook's latest change is not that they force you to link your interests without permission, but rather that they remove an option to express yourself on the profile without links. As we noted, Facebook users now face a Hobson's choice between the new Connections and no listed interests at all. As Facebook explains, "If you didn't connect to any of the suggestions, the sections of your profile to which those suggestions corresponded will now be empty." (The transition tool also allows you to delay the choice by saying 'Ask Me Later'). Previously, you could list interests in your profile without linking; after the transition, you cannot. You do have options to adjust visibility on the profile page, for which we commend Facebook, but nevertheless, this is not a true opt-out because the all the "Facebook Pages you connect to are public."

Facebook users would be better off and better able to express themselves if they could choose whether or not to link their interests and activities to a community, if they decide to list them.


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