Facebook has essentially a three-level approach to privacy: friends, friends of friends and public. Its mantra has been: "control everything you share."

The changes in privacy policy that Facebook introduced since the second week of December has had scores of users of the world’s biggest online social network up in arms.

The bone of contention is the default setting of the posts. The network, which has more than 350 million users, has kept the default settings to “visible to all” against keeping them private, thereby encouraging its users to share information with all. Several online analysts feel this could be because Facebook is facing the heat from Twitter, the micro-blogging social network, which is fast growing. The latter’s unique selling proposition is its capacity for instant sharing and in a scenario of real-time search, it scores better. But in Facebook, this capability is compromised, should its users choose to keep their updates and messages ‘private.’ Private conversations are not open to search engines, and this is bound to hurt.

Prominent online technology sites such as www.techcrunch.com and www.readwriteweb.com are already criticising Facebook for “privacy fiasco” and “pushing people to go public.”

In its open letter to all registered users, Facebook on December 9 introduced some major policy changes. It listed four major points as being the crux of the changes: it is designed to make it easy for people to share information and they can use the privacy settings to control with whom the information is shared; it was not to be viewed as just a website but as a information-sharing service; certain information such as name, profile photo, friends’ list and the kind you find in the ‘profile’ section are considered publicly available to every one and do not have privacy settings; and the service itself was free and supported by advertising, though information of users would not be shared with advertisers without consent.

Facebook has essentially a three-level approach to privacy: friends, friends of friends and public. Its mantra has been: “control everything you share.”

The most jarring change was that the default settings for posts changed from “old settings” to “visible to all.” So those who had never changed their privacy settings since signing up have a valid cause to necessarily review it. Also users who wish to keep their conversations, images or videos private, will require an implicit action to keep it that way. But whether this amounts to forcing the users to share has become a matter of debate.

Marshall Kirkpatrick, a columnist for ReadWriteWeb.com, was among the first to criticise the changes. “This is not what Facebook users signed up for. It’s not about privacy at all, it’s about increasing traffic and visibility of activity on the site,” he said.

A history of trouble

Facebook has had prior run-ins with authorities as well as Internet communities about its confusing and complicated privacy settings. The most prominent case was in July this year when the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, based on a complaint filed by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interests Clinic, disputed the way Facebook handled privacy on some charges, relating to deletion of accounts, accounts of deceased users and third-party applications.

Electronic Frontier Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation working for online freedom, has criticised the new policy. It has said: “Looking even closer at the new Facebook privacy changes, things get downright ugly when it comes to controlling who gets to see personal information such as your list of friends. Under the new regime, Facebook treats that information -- along with your name, profile picture, current city, gender, networks and the pages you are a fan of as publicly available information. Earlier, users were allowed to restrict access to much of that information. Now, however, those privacy options have been eliminated.”

Adam Tolnay, researcher, Social Networks and Games for Social Change, Centre for Study of Language and Information, Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, says Facebook has always been trying some changes and negotiating with its users only to take them.

In response to the criticism, Barry Schnitt, director of corporate communications and public policy, Facebook, has said it never compelled users to divulge correct details in their profiles.