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Is Simpler Better for Facebook's Privacy Policy?

Chris Conley,
Policy Attorney,
ACLU of Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Project
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February 28, 2011

Facebook is working on a “privacy policy written for regular people.” Giving users descriptions that they can actually understand is a great thing, and we’re glad to see Facebook move in that direction. But, as we’ve pointed out with Facebook before, simpler isn’t always better—and some parts of the proposed policy are pretty confusing anyhow. So we’re glad that Facebook plans to make its new privacy policy simpler to read and understand—but we hope it will simply provide better controls and protection too.

One of the questions that users often struggle to understand is what Facebook does with their information. Unfortunately, the new policy doesn’t make that much clearer. It breaks up “Information We Receive” into (1) “your information” that users “intentionally share,” (2) “information others share about you,” and (3) “other information we receive about you.” But “How We Use the Information We Receive” doesn’t clearly explain whether the rules apply to all that “other information” that Facebook collects when you use the service or visit its partners, or whether only the information you “intentionally share” is yours to control in any way.

And instead of informing users that their data might be disclosed to the government in the same section, that information is in a separate section called “Some Other Things You Need to Know” where you can “Learn how we make changes to this policy and more.”

Still a bit confusing, isn’t it?

It’s not even clear what it means when Facebook says that “you always own all of your information.”Does that mean just things that you “intentionally share” such as your photos and Likes, or does it include all of the other records that Facebook keeps about you: your IP address, current location, and more?

And we’re still concerned about the “app gap.” We have seen in the past that few users really know how much information apps and partner sites can get, and even wrote our own Facebook quiz to help users understand. Unfortunately, we can’t tell whether Facebook’s simpler privacy policy will help with this, because the section about apps doesn’t seem to be working at the moment. We’ll take a look when it’s ready.

So we’re glad that Facebook continues to grapple with the hard challenges of user privacy and are applying their “unconventional, innovative spirit” to the task of making privacy easier to understand and manage. And with your help, we can keep encouraging Facebook to do more to protect privacy. Please sign our petition urging Facebook to give its users more control over their own information. And chime in on the comment thread about today’s announcement and let Facebook know you don’t just want a simpler privacy policy—you simply want better privacy, period.

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