Facebook agrees to give more privacy control

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The Independent Tech

Facebook has agreed to give users more control over the information they share with third-party applications like games and quizzes in response to concerns raised by Canadian privacy officials.

Currently, people who wish to use such third-party software have to agree to share all their data with the application. For example, many users didn't know that when they sign up to do quizzes they are giving a developer access to all the information in their profile and that in their friends' profiles.



With the changes, the application developer will have to specify which categories of data the software needs, so users can decide accordingly. Users who authorize an application will be able to opt out of giving certain information.



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. "The changes Facebook plans to introduce will allow users to control the types of personal information that applications can access."

Although the changes stemmed from Canadian privacy complaints, they will apply to Facebook's 250 million users worldwide.



Last month, Canada's privacy commissioner accused Facebook of disclosing personal information about users to the nearly 1 million third-party developers worldwide who create Facebook applications.



Stoddart's report also said the website breaches Canada's privacy law by keeping a user's personal information indefinitely - even after some members close their accounts.



As part of Thursday's agreement, Facebook will provide users with a clearer distinction between deleting an account - which removes all personal information from Facebook servers after two weeks - and deactivating it, which merely stores the information in its database.



The website will also provide users with a better explanation of how its advertising programs work, and will change how it handles the accounts of deceased users.



"People will be able to enjoy the benefits of social networking without giving up control of their personal information," Stoddart said.



However, analysts cautioned that these are not foolproof safeguards.



"Users are going to be more aware that applications are accessing their data but it has yet to be seen if their just going to continue to click through those applications and still give them all the information they ask for," said Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director at Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, DC-based think tank that seeks to advance responsible data practices, who said these changes do not come close to a solution for the issue of applications and privacy.



But Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications and public policy at Facebook, said the changes set a new standard for the social networking industry.



Facebook said the entire process would take up to a year to implement.



Privacy has been a central, often thorny issue for Facebook because so many people use it to share personal information with their friends and family. As the 5-year-old social networking service has expanded its user base and added features, its privacy controls have grown increasingly complicated.



The Palo Alto, California-based company has said it was overhauling its privacy controls in an attempt to simplify its users' ability to control who sees the information they share on the site.



The Canadian privacy commission garnered worldwide attention this summer when Canada became the first country to legally examine Facebook's privacy provisions. Stoddart said European and Australian regulators had also begun looking at social networking issues.



The privacy commissioner launched the probe of Facebook in response to a complaint last year from the Canadian internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa.



The outcome of Canada's investigation could influence the practices of other social networking websites, such as MySpace and Twitter.



A MySpace spokeswoman told the Associated Press that they have contacted Canada's privacy commissioner and will be meeting with her next month to begin a dialogue about its privacy policies. She said the changes announced by Facebook will not affect MySpace operations, noting that it already deletes users information from its servers once an account is deactivated.



With nearly 12 million Canadian Facebook users, Canada is among the world leaders in per capita usage of the site.

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