Dec. 12, 2009— -- Facebook has begun rolling out its new privacy settings to all of its 350 million users. If you haven't seen it already, you will soon have to go through a wizard that will guide you through the process of confirming your privacy settings.
The new settings are supposed to make it easier and simpler to control your information, but the changes are drawing a mix of criticism and praise from privacy watchdogs such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
The new privacy controls include some great changes, and some not-so-great changes, but here are five privacy issues you should know about as these settings roll out across Facebook.
When I checked my search settings this morning, the option to index my profile by public search engines had been turned on. This is despite the fact that I had explicitly turned off this setting when Facebook launched public search listings two years ago.
If you don't want search engines like Google and Bing to index your profile, do yourself a favor and make sure those settings are still set the way you want them to be.
To adjust your search privacy settings click on Settings>Privacy Settings>Search. If the "Allow indexing" box is checked then search engines will be able to index your information.
Facebook has added a new layer of protection for changing your privacy settings. Under the new policy you will have to enter your password whenever you want to change your privacy settings. This is a smart move, and quite a common policy with other Web services.
But in my tests, this extra protection did not work very well at all. Once I had chosen to exclude my Facebook profile from public search engines, I left my privacy settings page and returned to my profile (your settings are saved automatically).
But when I went back to my privacy settings, the pages were wide open with no password requirement. I tested this out on several browsers and operating systems, I also signed out and back in several times to see if that would change anything.
But each time I checked my security settings were wide open. The password protection eventually came back after half an hour or so, but that was far too long. The password requirement should come back automatically or Facebook should be telling you that this setting is set to time out.
Publicly Available Information (PAI) Changes
Facebook is also changing what it deems to be publicly available information (PAI), with almost no recourse for the user to control this--a change that does not sit well with the EFF.
Information under the PAI umbrella includes your profile picture, friends list (Facebook says the view friends link has been removed from search results), fan pages, gender, geographic region, and networks (school, work, etc.). There is almost no recourse to protect any of this information.
To illustrate how important this setting could be, the EFF points out that you may belong to a fan page that supports or condemns gay marriage. Since this is such a controversial issue, that may be a position you are not willing to share with co-workers, fellow church members, or other Facebook friends.
Although your friends list is technically under the PAI umbrella, you can still control who sees it. But controls for this information are found on your Facebook profile page -- not your privacy settings.
If you want to restrict who sees your friends list within Facebook, click on the pencil icon next to your Friends widget below your profile picture, and uncheck the box that says "Show my friends on my profile."
Other information you can remove from your profile page includes your gender and current city.
While Facebook is taking away some control over publicly available information, you are getting extreme control over other parts of your Facebook profile. Now you can restrict who sees your shared content on a per-post basis.
Don't want certain friends to see your latest update? No problem.
Need to keep those photos of you at the bar away from your co-workers? You can do that too.
Facebook's New Privacy Settings Are a Mixed Bag
Facebook's new privacy settings are a mixed bag of better and simpler controls over some information, while loosening the restrictions on others.
Of course, if you don't want some of that information to appear, you can always delete it from Facebook (you cannot delete your gender, but you can make it invisible).
Facebook's privacy controls may not be perfect, but they will urge users to think even harder about what they're sharing on Facebook, and ultimately that may be a good thing.