Commentary

Facebook Fixes Glitch, But Privacy Problems Persist

Facebook has made a minor tweak to its privacy settings. But the company hasn't yet come close to fixing the major problems posed by its new privacy controls.

Facebook came in for criticism this week for reclassifying friend lists as "publicly available information" and restricting users' ability to restrict access to such lists. In the past, people could limit that access to their friends (the Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a screenshot of the prior controls).

Now, however, users must either allow everyone or no one to view their friend lists. What's more, people can no longer restrict access from their privacy settings page, but must go to the "profile" section of their Facebook pages, click on the icon next to their friend list, and uncheck the box that says "show my friends on my profile."

Facebook also took away users' ability to prevent their information from being shared when friends added apps. In the past, Facebook let users click a box that said, "Do not share any information about me through the Facebook API." But Facebook took away that option with this week's privacy "upgrade."

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Rights group like the EFF and ACLU immediately took issue with the changes and asked Facebook to give users more control over who can see their data.

But what many critics didn't realize on Wednesday, when Facebook started rolling out the new settings, was that at least one of the new controls apparently had a technical defect: Unchecking the "show my friends" box made friend lists invisible within Facebook, but non-members -- as well as members who had logged out -- could still retrieve Facebook users' friend lists via search engines like Google.

Now, Facebook has taken care of that apparent glitch; people who uncheck the "show my friends" box will hide their friend lists Web-wide.

For whatever reason, Facebook is presenting this apparently technical fix as a response to users' concerns when, in fact, it resolves none of the substantive issues critics have raised about Facebook's new privacy controls.

"The new setting for hiding your Friend List is ridiculously buried in your profile page settings rather than featured prominently in the privacy settings," EFF lawyer Kevin Bankston says in an email to MediaPost. "It only allows you to show your Friends List to everyone or no one, rather than just your friends."

What's more, he adds, "that setting doesn't prevent Facebook from now giving your Friends List to every Facebook app that any of your friends install."

Judging from the comments on Facebook's blog, some vocal users agree with the EFF. "Do not like the fact that either everyone or nobody can see my friends," says one.

"You have no excuse, you must allow us to hide our friend list only to people we're not friends with," offers a second.

"I don't want the public to be able to see my list of friends but I could like my friends to be able to see it... so why isn't there an option?" asks another.

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