Facebook has been forced to give its users more control over how much of their personal information is shared with the social networking site and the makers of the games and quizzes they download on to their profile pages, in the latest move to increase online consumer protection.
The move, which comes in response to complaints from Canadian privacy officials, is part of a growing trend to clamp down on the use of personal data by social networking sites and the software developers who use them to distribute their applications. It could have repercussions for other sites such as MySpace and even Twitter.
As consumers are given more and more power over the use of their information, it reduces the potential ability of companies such as Facebook to make money supplying that information to advertisers. In the past, the company has come under fire for its own use of users’ information to target advertising.
After a year-long review from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Facebook has agreed to give users more information about how it uses their data for advertising, and to change the default settings of its privacy controls — which many users leave unaltered — to better reflect users’ preferences.
It is also tightening up on the information available to third parties about its users. Facebook, founded by Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, pioneered the use of downloadable applications, opening up its site so anyone could produce a program. They started as silly games, such as throwing sheep or pies at other friends, but have evolved considerably, and as part of the downloading process users have to allow them access to all their information such as date of birth, marital status and what groups they belong to on the site.
Now Facebook has accepted this needs tightening up. The changes, which Facebook will introduce over the next year, will affect all 250-million Facebook users worldwide.
Application developers will have to specify which categories of data the software needs, so users can decide accordingly. Specifically, the application will have to tell users why it wants very sensitive information, such as date of birth. Users will also have to specifically approve any access Facebook applications have to their friends’ information. Such access still would be subject to the friend’s privacy and application settings.
“Application developers have had virtually unrestricted access to Facebook users’ personal information,” privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart told reporters on Friday. “The changes Facebook plans to introduce will allow users to control the types of personal information that applications can access.”
Elliot Schrage, vice-president of global communications and public policy at Facebook, said: “Our productive and constructive dialogue with the commissioner’s office has given us an opportunity to improve our policies and practices in a way that will provide even greater transparency and control for Facebook users.
“We believe that these changes are not only great for our users and address all of the commissioners’ outstanding concerns, but they also set a new standard for the industry.”