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Facebook To Update Its Privacy Controls

By Paul O’Reilly

Responding to the ever-changing needs of its vast audience – and maybe to some competitive pressure from Twitter Facebook has announced that it is overhauling its privacy settings and the way it allows members to communicate with each other and the outside world.

In a limited test program, which it hopes to extend to everyone on the site, Facebook is making it easier for a user to select which groups or individuals are able to see certain text updates, photos or videos. “Our overall philosophy is that people should be as open or as closed as they want to be,” said Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer for the company, in a conference call with reporters this week.

For example, the new controls would make it easier for a user to remind friends and family members about a surprise birthday party, while excluding the birthday girl herself. Up to now it has been possible to set up some exclusions but the relevant controls are buried in more than six hard-to-find pages and over 40 different options.

Part of the motivation for change is a desire to simplify those controls. Less than a quarter of Facebook’s 200 million members adjust their privacy settings and a simpler approach might lead to better utilization and more levels of communications, reflecting what goes on in the real world.

One drawback for parents is that they may find themselves out of the loop in many exchanges. Once promoted as an antidote to inappropriate online behavior, friending one’s child may soon be just a symbolic gesture, as it becomes easier for kids to screen out parents when it comes to sharing the juicier gossip!

In other announced changes, Facebook will give members over the age of 18 the option of sharing information and updates with everyone on the Internet, much like Twitter. This links into the recent re-design that allowed users to claim custom Web addresses for their Facebook accounts, making them more accessible by non-members, and possibly even search engines.

Taken together, the changes could make Facebook a far more flexible communications tool, said Charlene Li, founder of the digital strategy firm Altimeter Group. “I’m looking forward to having a ‘girlfriend’ feed where I can dish with my close girlfriends, but also use Facebook to broadcast to everyone, even outside of Facebook.”  

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