Home Why Facebook Changed Its Privacy Strategy

Why Facebook Changed Its Privacy Strategy

We reported yesterday that Facebook is aiming to get people to be more public on the site and that anyone who hasn’t changed their privacy settings will now see it “recommended” that their status updates, photos etc. be exposed to the whole web. I had a unique opportunity to speak to Barry Schnitt, Director of Corporate Communications and Public Policy at Facebook and quite a frank guy, at length this afternoon about Facebook’s privacy policy changes.

Schnitt said “your understanding is basically correct,” but disagreed with the negative light I saw the change in. Becoming less private and more public is “a change just like it was a change in 2006 when Facebook became more than just people from colleges,” Schnitt told us. “Facebook is changing,” he said, “and so is the world changing and we are going to innovate to meet user requests.” Do you buy that?

The State of the Transition

22 million randomly chosen users have been prompted to re-evaluate their privacy settings so far, Schnitt said, out of 350 million users on the site. Those who have edited any privacy settings before will see those old settings selected as the new default, unless they were more public with their phone number and birthday than Facebook recommends. Facebook doesn’t recommend that you expose your phone number and birthday to everyone, just your friends of friends at most.

Facebook does recommend that you share the content you post to the site, including status messages and photos, with everyone across the whole web. That’s new. If you’ve never edited your privacy settings before, Facebook will set the new default on the “transition” page to share all your posted content with everyone. You are free, of course, to change that setting. Schnitt told me that so far, more than 50% of users who have gone through the transition screen have in fact changed their “posts I create” setting. Schnitt did not know, however, what percentage of those people were changing it for the first time and away from “everyone” vs the percentage of people who were taking the opportunity to change a restrictive setting to a newly more public one.

See also: Zuckerberg Changes His Own Privacy Settings

I’d guess most of those 50% of changers were first time privacy appliers, because privacy was presumed before.

Schnitt says that only 15 to 20% of Facebook users have ever changed their privacy settings before, so 80 to 85% of people will now be switched by “recommendation” to share their content with the whole web. Schnitt doesn’t like the word “default,” he says, because this is such an easy option to change. He says that means that privacy groups are wrong when they say Facebook is tricking or confusing people – that this change has in fact meant a jump from %15 to 50%+ of users making a decision about their privacy settings. That’s good!

Why The Change?

Schnitt said that the company experimented with calls for users to re-evaluate the confusing privacy settings without any default option (“recommendation”) preselected. “People didn’t interact with it and they asked for a recommendation,” he told us. “85% of people agreed with our recommendations before.”

By that he means that the 85% of people who never changed their privacy settings agreed with Facebook’s recommendations before and would likely do so again now. I asked whether most people signed up for Facebook because it was private between friends and family and Schnitt argued that was just one way to interpret it.

“In 2007, when on Facebook you did not have any options but to share just with friends, we added more options as the world has changed,” he said. “I don’t think there were people then asking for public sharing, but people asked us to share more broadly.” (I asked if those people were marketers and Schnitt said he didn’t know what they do for a living.)

Now in 2010, it’s time to share even more broadly – if you so choose.

Why are things changing at Facebook? “Because the site is changing,” Schnitt said, “our userbase is changing and the world changing.”

How is the userbase changing? “It’s growing in size and people are sharing more information with more people,” he told me.

Hasn’t the premise always been that Facebook prioritizes limited exposure of shared content in order for people to feel more comfortable sharing and thus share more? Schnitt said the world was changing and that so long as they feel in control of who sees what, everyone seeing things they post will likely be good for most people.

And then came the big answers to the big questions.

How is the world changing? Isn’t Facebook, having grown from 140 million users 12 months ago to being the 3rd largest nation on earth at 350 million users today, in fact a leading agent changing the world? Isn’t this change proscribing cultural change, instead of just reflecting it?

“Tens of millions of people have joined Twitter,” Schnitt said. “That’s wide open. So is MySpace.” I asked for more examples of the world changing in that way. Reality TV? “Frankly, yes,” he said,”public blogs instead of private diaries, far more people commenting on newspaper websites than ever wrote letters to the editor.”

I told Schnitt I didn’t buy much of that beyond maybe Twitter (maybe you do, readers) but that I wanted to discuss what Facebook’s interests were in moving its hundreds of millions of users towards more public sharing.

Facebook’s Public Sharing Agenda

Schnitt’s first explanation of Facebook’s interest in increased openness was what I expected him to say. It’s the same thing founder Mark Zuckerberg says and it is no doubt an important part of the story.

“By making the world more open and connected, we’re expanding understanding between people and making the world a more emphathetic place,” Schnitt said. “And we know that when users find their friends, are found by their friends and learn more about the world around them – they find more value on the site. From a business perspective, if users are finding more value from the site they will come back more and engage in more activity. And you can imagine the business consequences of that.”

That means ads. Traffic and ads. And empathy and world peace.

That’s the new Facebook! Recommending you share your content with the whole web at large because users requested it, because it believes the world is changing that way so you’ll feel comfortable with it, because it believes openness increases human connection and because it’s going to increase traffic and advertising revenues. (See Chris Saad for a good argument that there’s nothing wrong with this.)

Do you agree with Barry Schnitt of Facebook? I suspect that most people on Facebook will not. Millions of people hated the Facebook Newsfeed when it was introduced, though (they said it was a privacy violation) and now it’s changed the world and is widely beloved.

Facebook may just be doing us all a service, but it sure would be nice if they’d be more honest about what they are doing. This was a refreshingly frank interview, but most of Facebook’s communication has felt like obfuscation.

In the end, I suspect this will not be a terrible thing. People will not be completely unsophisticated in their engagement with these new settings, and some people will end up tiring of Facebook’s pushes towards public settings and leave for other emergent networks. And the world will become more public. In the mean time, I think many users are going to be unhappy about it.

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