Under Pressure, Facebook Rolls Back Privacy Changes

CEO Mark Zuckerberg Says Despite Criticisms, 'No Meaningful Change' in Defections

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Facebook's rapid response to privacy concerns may just have saved the world's fastest-growing internet brand from long-term damage. The company, which has undergone a month of withering criticism, today introduced a simplified new dashboard to control privacy settings, rolling back some of the changes made last month that confused users, concerned privacy advocates and drew the attention of Congress.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg explains Facebook's new privacy controls.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg explains Facebook's new privacy controls. Credit: AP
"We made a lot of changes at the same time," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "And what we didn't do is communicate what we were trying to do very well."

Facebook has been the center of the online privacy debate since late April, when the social network launched the open graph platform, where the site stores data every time a user "likes" pages anywhere across the internet. The changes prompted a closer look at how the site shares data with third-party publishers and advertisers and set off reports that opting out of data sharing on the site was difficult and confusing. That initial change also prompted a rallying cry in Washington against Facebook in the name of user privacy.

New changes include one-click settings to determine who sees the data users store on Facebook. The settings dashboard is now one grid rather than multiple, granular options. New settings also include single check boxes for contentious new features such as instant personalization, which shares preference data with three outside networks such as Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft Docs. The more specific controls still exist, but only under the simplified, easy to use privacy dash.

Onetime critics praised the move, but the question is whether the relationship between Facebook and its more than 500 million users has suffered any lasting damage.

"I think it's a dent to their brand, but not long-term damage," said Bryan Wiener, CEO of Dentsu digital agency 360i. "They owned up to their mistake quick enough so they've avoided that."

Facebook does seem to have diffused some of the concern in Washington over its policies. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who unexpectedly emerged as a powerful critic of the social network, sent out a statement while Mr. Zuckerberg was still in the process of explaining the new changes to privacy settings.

"Facebook has heard the call of its users and realizes that much greater privacy protections are needed," said the statement. "This is a significant first step that Facebook deserves credit for."

"The clear and present danger to their business is a privacy Three Mile Island," said Steve Rubel, senior VP-director of insights for Edelman Digital, referring to the 1979 partial core meltdown of a nuclear reactor. "This was not; this was a minor leak."

Mr. Zuckerberg also took the opportunity to clear up what he called a "misconception" that privacy changes and his company's open data policies were designed to benefit advertisers. He pointed out that Facebook targets all its ad itself and does not feed data to advertisers. "There's a big misconception that we're making these changes because they're good for advertisers," he said. "Anyone who knows me knows that's crazy." Facebook is in the process of building its advertising model, and became profitable late last year.

Facebook privacy controls

The new privacy controls.

"The speed they [Facebook] acted with is terrific," said Mr. Rubel. "They recognized it's about trust. They have to hold on to the trust of their users and their advertisers -- that's their Achilles heel."

Privacy groups lauded Mr. Zuckerberg for walking back some of the changes, but said they plan to continue to pressure Congress to investigate how Facebook shares data with advertisers. "There are more simplified and manageable privacy settings, and Facebook has made an important first step," said Jeff Chester, president of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Unfortunately, Facebook still refuses to give its users control over the data it collects for its targeted advertising products."

One way Facebook plans to communicate these simplified controls to users is with a notice on its home page, one of the most-trafficked single pages on the web, and one usually considered sacrosanct. As for regaining the user trust that may have been lost in the privacy hubbub, Mr. Zuckerberg said that, according to the numbers, there has been "no meaningful change" in the number of users deactivating their accounts.

"One of the things we're really taking away from this is that there were a lot of different changes," said Mr. Zuckerberg. "Maybe we should have gone a lot slower, maybe we should have communicated better."

"The effectiveness of the proposal will be judged by how prominently displayed and easily accessed the opt-out option is for the user," continued Mr. Schumer's statement. "We will be monitoring this carefully."

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