Facebook Details New Privacy Controls

Revamped app permissions process could aid developers

The permission box that pops up every time users first install an app that connects with their Facebook accounts can be annoying. Why does this music app need the ability to post to my Facebook profile, users may ask themselves before thinking otherwise about logging into it.

Facebook seems to get the friction its permission box introduces and has updated it to be more app-friendly as well as user-friendly. Now when users sign up to use an app, they’ll only be asked permission for the information the app needs to function. As they use the app and hit points where they want to share something with their Facebook friends, for example, they’ll be asked for permission for the app to post to their Facebook accounts.

“These choices are better made contextually [as opposed to before a user actually uses an app],” said Rob Sherman, manager of privacy and public policy at Facebook. However this won’t be the case for all apps. Games on Facebook.com will still ask for all account permissions at the initial log-in.

The new app permissions box is one of several privacy changes Facebook will be rolling out over the coming weeks, said Facebook public policy manager Nicky Jackson Colaco. “These changes are to bring transparency and control to people at the end of the year when we want people to go through and [check] what they want on the site,” she said. To that end, Facebook is folding its privacy settings page into the broader account settings page, so that users won’t have to hunt out a separate privacy page and may be more likely to check their privacy settings when configuring other account settings.

Colaco made clear that none of the changes should impact brands or ads and categorized the changes into two buckets: in-context controls and user understanding of privacy settings.

The app permissions modification falls into the in-context controls bucket as an example of controls users enact when they’re doing something related to sharing. Another—albeit broader—example is the privacy icon pinned to the toolbar atop Facebook pages that functions as a privacy guide dog. When users have questions about their privacy settings, they can click the icon and type in a search query for what their privacy concern is, such as who can see their posts, who can contact them through Facebook and how can they stop someone from bothering them on the social network.

The second category of changes revolves around user education. Colaco explained that not all users may be aware that just because they’ve hidden content like a photo from their user time line doesn’t mean other users can’t see it in the news feed, through Facebook searches or on other users’ profile pages. To clear up any confusion, Facebook will add notifications when users hide content from their timelines that informs them that it can still appear elsewhere on the social network.

Facebook is also updating the Activity Log introduced last year that pools together everything a user’s done on Facebook, such as comments they’ve left, posts they’ve liked and photos they’ve been tagged in. The revamped Activity Log also lets users view content in filters, so that they can figure out which photos certain sets of users—such as friends or friends of friends—can see or which photos are not currently displayed on their time line. Facebook has also added the ability to users to untag themselves from several photos at once, rather than tediously selecting one photo to untag at a time. And considering that sometimes even untagging oneself from a photo isn’t enough to distance that person from an embarrassing shot—like the image of someone passed out at their company’s holiday party that a coworker took and posted to his Facebook account for all other coworkers to gawk at—Facebook has added a button that lets users explain why they want the photo taken down and request the person who posted the photo to remove it from Facebook entirely. The user will then be notified when the respective photos are removed.

“Photos are a key thing we want to encourage people to manage,” Sherman said. The focus makes sense given how popular photos are among content posted to Facebook. And the company has embraced that change, between acquiring Instagram and recently letting users sync their smartphone’s photo libraries with their Facebook accounts to store those photos on the social network.

The timing of Facebook’s new privacy controls announcement is a bit ironic, coming shortly after it held a user vote on policy changes that failed to garner enough participants as to force Facebook to follow its users’ wishes and a day after Facebook moved forward with the decision to eliminate future user votes on policy changes.

While consumer privacy advocates will decry the decision, federal privacy hawks may welcome the new privacy controls. Little more than a year after Facebook agreed to settle a privacy complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, Sherman said the changes announced Wednesday are “not motivated specifically by things we were asked by regulators,” but regulators did encourage the company to provide more user education of its privacy controls.