Facebook unveils new privacy controls

13 Dec, 2012

Facebook Inc began rolling out a variety of new privacy controls on Wednesday, the company's latest effort to address user concerns about who can see their personal information on the world's largest social network.

New tools introduced on Wednesday will make it easier for Facebook's members to quickly determine who can view the photos, comments and other information about them that appears on different parts of the website, and to request that any objectionable photos they're featured in be removed.

A new privacy "shortcut" in the top-right hand corner of the website provides quick access to key controls such as allowing users to manage who can contact them and to block specific people.

The new controls are the latest changes to Facebook's privacy settings, which have been criticized in the past for being too confusing.

Facebook Director of Product Sam Lessin said the changes were designed to increase users' comfort level on the social network, which has roughly one billion users.

"When users don't understand the concepts and controls and hit surprises, they don't build the confidence they need," said Lessin.

Facebook, Google Inc and other online companies have faced increasing scrutiny and enforcement from privacy regulators as consumers entrust ever-increasing amounts of information about their personal lives to Web services.

In April, Facebook settled privacy charges with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that it had deceived consumers and forced them to share more personal information than they intended. Under the settlement, Facebook is required to get user consent for certain changes to its privacy settings and is subject to 20 years of independent audits.

Facebook's Lessin said some users don't understand that the information they post on their Timeline profile page is not the only personal information about them that may be viewable by others. Improvements to Facebook's so-called Activity Log will make it easier for users to see at a glance all the information that involves them across the social network.

Facebook also said it is changing the way that third-party apps, such as games and music players, get permission to access user data. An app must now provide separate requests to create a personalized service based on a user's personal information and to post automated messages to the Facebook newsfeed on behalf of a user - previously users agreed to both conditions by approving a single request.

The revamped controls follow proposed changes that Facebook has made to its privacy policy and terms of service. The changes would allow Facebook to integrate user data with that of its recently acquired photo-sharing app Instagram, and would loosen restrictions on how members of the social network can contact other members using the Facebook email system.

Nearly 600,000 Facebook users voted to reject the proposed changes, but the votes fell far short of the roughly 300 million needed for the vote to be binding, under Facebook's existing rules. The proposed changes also would eliminate any such future votes by Facebook users.

Twitter, privacy advocates eye 'Occupy' case after guilty plea

An Occupy Wall Street protester who tried unsuccessfully to keep prosecutors from subpoenaing his tweets pleaded guilty Wednesday to disorderly conduct, in a case that could have broad implications for Twitter users as prosecutors increasingly use social media to build their cases.

The guilty plea in New York City Criminal Court from Malcolm Harris, one of hundreds arrested during an October 2011 mass march across the Brooklyn Bridge, does not mark the end of his legal battle, his lawyer, Martin Stolar said.

With his criminal case resolved, Harris is now free to appeal the judge's ruling that he does not have the legal right to challenge a subpoena served on Twitter for his tweets.

That issue - essentially, whether users of the social media site Twitter own their tweets and thus have standing to challenge prosecutors who seek to use their posts against them - has rarely, if ever, been taken up by U.S. courts.

The case, and the murky legal ground it covers, has prompted concerns among privacy advocates. They worry it could set a precedent that social media users do not own their content, putting the burden on Twitter and other companies to step in on their users' behalf when they face criminal prosecution.

"Setting a legal precedent on how this material can be used is much more important" than the minor offense he faced, Harris said outside the courtroom after entering the plea.

Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino ruled earlier this year that Harris cannot challenge the subpoena because his posts belong to Twitter, not to him.

That stance runs contrary to Twitter's own interpretation. The company maintains in its terms of service that users have a proprietary interest in their tweets.

Twitter filed its own motion to quash the subpoena, but Sciarrino rejected that effort as well.

Twitter has appealed that ruling, calling it a case "of first impression," and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have filed amicus briefs in support. An appellate court has not yet rendered a decision.

"This case demonstrates why the law needs to keep up with technology," said Aden Fine, an ACLU lawyer.

"The most troubling aspect of this case is the court's ruling that an individual Twitter user doesn't even have the right to go to court to try to protect their constitutional rights. It's not realistic to expect Twitter to go into court every single time one of its millions of users is affected by a subpoena."

The Brooklyn Bridge protest occurred at the height of the Occupy movement, which drew thousands of activists across the country angry at what they called a rigged economic system.

Like many of the protesters, Harris had argued that police appeared to lead protesters onto the bridge before suddenly arresting them.

But prosecutors said in court Wednesday that his tweets, which were no longer available online, undermined that defense. Harris boasted that the protesters pushed past police even when they tried to stop the march, according to prosecutors.

Twitter handed over the tweets in September after Sciarrino threatened it with civil contempt and hefty fines.