To Appease a Worried Public, Facebook Vastly Simplifies Privacy Settings

Over the last few months, Facebook has made its privacy settings far more customizable -- and incredibly confusing. Bad idea.

On Wednesday the company unveiled new, dramatically simpler privacy controls that by default should limit the amount of information shared -- and make adjusting those settings far easier.

The changes are intended to address the growing outcry among users, who complain that the social-network's privacy settings, while affording a fine level of control over what data, pictures, and other information is shared, are just plain confusing.

Striking the right balance between privacy and sharing has been a bugaboo for the social networking giant.

"It hasn't always been smooth," admitted CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the brief conference call unveiling the changes.

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He pointed out that the current concerns about the privacy of data weren't really taken into account when the company developed the original site way back when, noting that Facebook -- or thefacebook as it was initial called -- has grown from tens of thousands of college students to more than 400 million people worldwide.

As Facebook expanded and people demanded more control over where their information was going, the site unveiled "per-object privacy," which allows an individual to control precisely who sees what.

"These are the types of modern control that are necessary on the site today," Zuckerberg said. But most people don't want to adjust settings like that, and hunting through the miasma of controls and settings can confuse even the most savvy user.

To that end, Zuckerberg announced one simple control for sharing data. The site will soon offer a recommended level of sharing, enabled by default, as well as one-click controls that let you easily adjust privacy settings to share data only with friends, friends of friends, or everyone.

Zuckerberg said the changes unveiled today should make less information available publicly.

“It isn't necessarily safe to share your cell phone number with everyone in Turkey,” he noted. Yet basic information will be available by default, making it easier for people to find you. This info includes your name, picture, gender, and the networks to which you're connected.

There are also changes to the Facebook Platform, which governs the thousands of apps that people use to connect other websites through Facebook. Some are services, such as music sharing site Pandora. Others are simple games, like MafiaWars or the wildly popular Farmville.

The social network has finally unveiled an opt-out function, letting you block those apps entirely. But there will be more granular control over what information applications can access as well. A new permissions module will roll out over the summer, Zuckerberg announced, which should mean that most apps will have less access to your information -- they'll have to ask for specific bits of data if they want it.

Facebook said the changes will be rolled out in the coming weeks. But will they be enough to satisfy an increasingly angry mob, threatening to quit the service? Only time will tell.

"We build a great company by serving users first,” Zuckerberg points out.