Facebook changes privacy policy; public search, app permissions affected

Less than 48 hours after it formally ended a pretend experiment in democracy, Facebook(s fb) plans to announce a series of updates to its privacy settings on Wednesday morning. Some of the changes are fairly straightforward, including updates that make it easier for users to change their privacy settings without leaving the newsfeed, and more contextual information telling them where their content will be shared. But other updates, such as eventually making everyone’s timeline searchable in the search bar, are more significant changes to how users actually interact with Facebook.

The changes come just as Facebook shut down an “experiment” with letting users vote on changes to its terms of service, but the two aren’t necessarily connected. In the post from the company explaining the changes, Facebook is very clear to emphasize the “educational” nature of the changes; as in, many of the changes will work to educate users on where their data is being posted and who can see it.

Facebook emphasized that the changes will roll out over the coming weeks.

One of the worst experiences one can have on Facebook is sharing content in one place and having it show up somewhere else you didn’t expect — and clearly the company knows this, and understands user backlash that comes from this unpleasant surprise.

Some of the changes that speak to this effect:

  • Separating app permissions: People using Facebook Connect to sign into another app are currently asked if they give that app permission to access their data and post on their behalf. Soon, those two permissions will be broken into separate actions the user can approve. For all of the apps taking advantage of Facebook Connect to get new users, this might mean fewer people will give them permission to post. But from a user’s perspective, it will likely make third-party posts on your timeline more predictable.

Facebook app permissions

  • Telling users where their posts will go: Now, when posting an item to Facebook, users will be reminded that even if they hide something from their timeline, for instance, that item could still show up on other places around Facebook. This is a helpful reminder because this isn’t always clear:

Facebook education posting reminder

  • A new request and removal tool: Now it will be easier for users to remove tags from several photos they’re tagged in all at once, or ask another to take items down that they dislike:

Request Removal tool

  • Updated activity log: The activity log has been updated to show people when they’re tagged in photos, and even if they’ve hidden those photos, where else those photos might appear on the site:

Facebook updated activity log

The company has also taken some of the most popular privacy setting areas and made it easier to edit those settings without leaving the newsfeed. However, probably the most notable update is that a user’s timeline, meaning at least their name and photo, will now be visible in searches.

The company explains in the post:

“Facebook started as a directory service for college students, and today we offer a whole variety of services, such as news feed, photo uploads and mobile messaging. As our services have evolved, our settings have, too.

Everyone used to have a setting called ‘Who can look up my timeline by name,’ which controlled if someone could be found when other people typed their name into the Facebook search bar. The setting was very limited in scope, and didn’t prevent people from finding others in many other ways across the site.

Because of the limited nature of the setting, we removed it for people who weren’t using it, and have built new, contextual tools, along with education about how to use them. In the coming weeks, we’ll be retiring this setting for the small percentage of people who still have it.”

This change may rile privacy experts and people who previously had this setting enabled. Facebook emphasized that very few individuals currently take advantage of this setting, and because it’s so easy to see people’s interactions on the site in other places, it’s hard to remain truly un-findable anyway, search tool aside. (If you’re tagged in a photo, or comment on a photo that appears in someone else’s stream, for example). But it’s easy to see how it could still bother plenty of people, as has nearly every update to Facebook since the site was founded.

I’ll be watching to see how users and experts react as the news sinks in on Wednesday.