Facebook is more privacy-friendly than ever — or so it wants you to think

Above: The "wall" in Facebook's New York City office.

Image Credit: Eric Blattberg / VentureBeat
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NEW YORK — User feedback hangs over the heads of Facebook’s product managers as they develop new privacy features.

Really.

Monitors that surround the privacy team show (often confused or vituperative) comments from real people, who respond to the 4,000 surveys that Facebook runs each day to assess how its user base feels about privacy on the world’s largest social network. It’s part of its internal and external effort to position itself as a privacy-friendly company.

But Facebook is no privacy champion. It just wants you to feel comfortable enough to share the maximal amount of material so that it can continue to make money on the data we create.

The pitch

Facebook invited VentureBeat and some other publications to participate in a “privacy whiteboard meeting,” in which two members of Facebook’s privacy team continuously reiterated how important privacy is to the company.

“We understand that some people have felt that Facebook privacy has changed too much in the past,” said Michael Nowak, a product manager on the network’s privacy team. “When people have unpleasant experiences … it’s bad for them and it’s bad for us.”

When Facebook members share a piece of content — a status, a photo, or a video — they can choose the audience they want share it with. Facebook’s latest privacy features attempt to simplify the process.

That audience indicator is now more prominent on mobile devices thanks to Facebook’s latest app updates.

And on desktops, Facebook is beginning to roll out a “privacy checkup” feature. If you post a string of material publicly, a window with a friendly, blue dinosaur will inevitably pop up to ask with whom you want to share your next post.

Although “we want to be careful to avoid interrupting people too much,” said Nowak, “we felt like it was worth interrupting people to make sure they’re sharing with the right people.”

Lastly, Facebook members can now make their past cover photos private, as they can with profile photos. The company intends to roll out that feature “in the coming weeks.”

The exceptions

“There is no one experience or privacy product we can ship that will make a perfect privacy experience for everyone on Facebook at all times,” said Nowak.

Facebook treats some data as “publicly available information” that people cannot make private: your name, your current profile picture, your current cover photo, your networks (such as your college), your gender, and your username. Beside your networks, which you can leave, the only way to make that other information private is to delete your Facebook account.

Facebook’s rationale for keeping that data public is that it creates a better user experience.

“We think those types of information really express who you are,” said Reylene Yung, an engineering manager at Facebook. “It also helps you, as the person who uses Facebook, find the right people to connect to.”

She might have added that it’s also extremely valuable information for advertisers.

Yung and Nowak declined to disclose metrics regarding public versus private sharing on the platform, but Facebook continues to emphasize the value of public content to outside companies and advertisers. Last month, it announced its “Public Content Solutions” program, which helps third-parties take advantage of the publicly available content on Facebook and Instagram. In October, Facebook lifted its restriction on teens sharing content publicly.

And we all know that teens have the best judgment on what to share online.

“To have a good public content systems means having people who want to share content publicly,” said Nowak.

We’re not trying to characterize Facebook as an evil, data-hungry behemoth. Rather, we are trying to remind folks that Facebook earns its revenue from your data. It’s not actively encouraging you to keep your data private; it wants to ensure you’re comfortable so you share more — ideally, with the whole, wide world.

More about the companies and people from this article:

Facebook is the world’s largest social network, with over 1.15 billion monthly active users. Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg in February 2004, initially as an exclusive network for Harvard students. It was a huge hit: in 2 w... read more »

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