Are Facebook’s new privacy settings another Jedi mind trick?

News from Facebook this week is that they have tweaked their privacy settings again.

Some people are touting this as an admission that Facebook must right some past wrong, but I question what additional privacy these changes afford.  After all, Facebook’s Data Use Policy and Terms of Service don’t reflect the change.

I suspect that these changes don’t give users any more control over their privacy than they previously had.  Let me explain why:

What changed?

Here’s a rundown of what changed:

  • New privacy shortcuts ( “Who can see my stuff?” “Who can contact me?” and “How do I stop someone from bothering me?”) allow you to navigate directly to privacy management tools from your home screen.
  • Users will approve the read and write functions separately when allowing Facebook access to any app
  • Better prompts describing the precise ramification of any privacy change
  • Improved activity log including more intuitive sorting functionality
  • Capability to untag multiple pictures at once as well as to request that other users remove content they are tagged in

But how do these improve privacy?  They don’t.  It appears to me that Facebook is trying to assure people about privacy by creating quasi-filters.  Facebook and its advertisers have as much access to user information as they did before these changes.  So Facebook’s argument is that they need to protect users from their friends, and I’m pretty sure that users don’t feel like friends are the most insidious element trying to access their information.

What Facebook didn’t change

Don’t be deceived that the date of last revision stated in Facebook’s Data Use Policy is December 11, 2012.  All of the key points allowing Facebook to do whatever they want with user information are still present.  Ironically, that referenced change was the elimination of Facebook’s longstanding policy allowing users to vote on privacy changes.

Funny thing about that: Facebook’s Site Governance Page (where Facebook posts material changes to its Data Use Policy) recounts that 668,000 people voted on the proposed change to the policies and an overwhelming 86% of users voted not to change the policy.  So why did it change?  Because the old policy required 30% of all Facebook users to vote in order to make the vote binding (otherwise it is simply “advisory”).  About 300 million users would have had to have voted in order for Facebook to take their advice.  Put into perspective, about 120 million people voted in the last US election…. so Facebook would have needed 2.5 times that in order for user feedback to overrule Facebook  (and that’s a pretty good summation of why I don’t think you can ever trust Facebook privacy protections).

A radical idea for privacy: give users some

While it’s fun to write posts like this bemoaning Facebook for rearranging the furniture and calling it “privacy,” there is another way.  They could actually give people opportunity to opt-out of a lot of the unsavory advertising and data collecting processes that Facebook participates in.

When Mark Zuckerberg’s wife got him interested in promoting organ donation, he added user declarations to Facebook.  At the time, I wrote about what a weak response that was.  After all, 42 percent of the US population are organ donors; 98 percent of Austrians are organ donors.  Facebook will have negligible impact on either of those numbers, to the detriment of  the 6000 people that die in the US each year waiting for an organ donation.  The difference between the US and Austria is that in the US, users opt-in to organ donation and in Austria users opt-out of organ donation.   In each case there are many people whose preference is misaligned but don’t perform a simple action to opt-out.  They default in.  Remember that magazine subscription that you kept for years longer than you wanted because it was autorenewed?  Same mechanism.

Facebook could opt everyone into their big brother privacy settings and give them a moderately difficult way to opt-out of them.  I suspect that the opt-out rate would probably be close to the amount of people who voted on Facebook’s privacy settings: less than 1%.  Of course Facebook will never do this – they are too loss averse and sensitive to their stock price.

As for Facebook’s “changes”: the illusion of privacy is much different than actual privacy.  As people become more aware, Facebook may find it more difficult to roll-out low-impact user improvements and call them privacy protections…. I hope so anyhow.

But for now, Obi-Wan Zuckerberg says there’s nothing for you to see here.  Move along Facebook users.  Move along.

Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.
  • e

    Or use an anti tracking plugin. There are several and they do as advertised.

  • Regina Johnson

    Well My account got “Hacked” into earlier this year and I haven’t touched it since don’t need it anymore anyway. My advise to people who still use Facebook and trust it Be very careful!! Trust is hard to come by these days especially On Line!!