Facebook Promises To Clarify Privacy Policy And Allow More User Control

Facebook will make changes to its privacy policies and practices in a move it says will help users to understand why it collects personal information and to control its use. The changes are the result of an investigation by Canada's privacy watchdog.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada said earlier this year that Facebook did not protect private information well enough to comply with Canada's laws on privacy. It said that the company's explanations of its privacy policies were "confusing and incomplete".

Facebook has now said that it will clear up its descriptions of what information it collects and how and will give users more control over what information third party developers of applications within Facebook can access.

Facebook provoked controversy when it refused to delete accounts and the information associated with them, instead allowing users to 'deactivate' them, with the information retained by Facebook in case the user wanted to reactivate their account.

Though the company changed its policy to allow deletion the Canadian Privacy Commissioner and others have noted that it was difficult to do and that the company's information pages referred most commonly to deactivation.

The company also faced a storm of protest over a proposed targetted advertising system that it called 'beacon' and which privacy campaigners said violated users' privacy by publishing the results of Facebook members' use of other websites.

Facebook said that it would now "[update] the Privacy Policy to better describe a number of practices, including the reasons for the collection of date of birth, account memorialization for deceased users, the distinction between account deactivation and deletion, and how its advertising programs work".

It also said that it would "increase the understanding and control a user has over the information accessed by third-party applications".

Applications are pieces of software created to run within Facebook. The makers of this software are given access to users' personal details, but critics have said that not every application maker needs access to every piece of personal information on a user.

Facebook has said that applications developers will now have to seek more specific permission from members for the use of particular kinds of information.

"Our productive and constructive dialogue with the Commissioner’s office has given us an opportunity to improve our policies and practices in a way that will provide even greater transparency and control for Facebook users,” said Elliot Schrage, vice-president of global communications and public policy for Facebook.

In a blog post aimed at the developers of these applications, the company said that changes would be some time away.

"We have committed to making these enhancements over the next twelve months, and anticipate a lengthy beta period including opportunities for you to provide input, multiple blog posts, and updated documentation delivered well ahead of time," said Facebook's Ethan Beard in the post.

"We've committed to requiring developers to specify in advance what categories of user data they will need," he said. "When users authorize an application, they will have the opportunity to opt out of giving certain pieces of information. There may be some fields that, at minimum, are necessary for the application to function. We will make it clear that the user must authorize the required fields in order to use the application."