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2/25/2011
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Facebook Proposes 'Data Use' Policy To Replace 'Privacy Policy'

It's not an official change, but if enough Facebook users approve, it could become one.

Facebook on Friday acknowledged what privacy advocates have been saying for years: Privacy policies are too difficult to understand.

"Our own privacy policy has been criticized as being '5830 words of legalese' and 'longer than the U.S. constitution -- without the amendments,' the company said in a blog post. "Okay, you're right. We agree that privacy policies can and should be more easily understood, and that inspired us to try something different."

The social networking site, which seems to be competing with Google to see which company can make headlines for the most privacy-related gaffes every year, wants to make privacy policies easy to understand, more visual and interactive, and more relevant to users' concerns.

Toward that end, Facebook has re-imagined its privacy policy and presented the results for user comment.

Most remarkably, the proposed design dispenses with the term "Privacy Policy" and replaces it with "Data Use Policy." Privacy advocates have long complained that the term "Privacy Policy" is misleading because privacy policies generally describe how and when data is shared.

This isn't an official change however: Facebook's Privacy Policy continues to represent the company's official position.

The proposed revision is undeniably more visually appealing. It's no longer a tower of impenetrable text. Instead, the "Data Use Policy" has been broken up into multiple pages. This makes it much more readable.

But what's gained in readability is lost in navigation: Each of the six primary sections on the Data Use Policy page leads to multiple subsections on the linked page, and many of these subsections require further navigation via disclosure icons. Navigating through all this is a chore.

Aza Raskin, formerly the design lead for Mozilla's Firefox and and more recently the co-founder of health startup Massive Health, framed the problem with privacy policies thus: "We need to reduce the complexity of privacy policies to an indicator scannable in seconds."

Complexity is not just a matter of words per page. It's a matter of time to comprehension. And unfortunately, Facebook's "Data Use Policy" remains irreducibly complex because Facebook and its platform developers employ user data in many different ways. The company admits that is has "tried not to change the substance of the policy..."

And therein lies Facebook's problem: Neither its "Privacy Policy" nor its "Data Use Policy" includes an option for actual privacy, which is to say unidentified use.

"If you want to completely block applications from getting your information, you will need to turn off all Platform applications," the company explains. "This means that you will no longer be able to use any games, applications or Web sites." And even then, Facebook still knows who you are, unless you're violating the site's Terms of Service. Facebook requires that users submit accurate personal information.

Contrast this with a post by Alma Whitten, Google's director of privacy for products and engineering, on Friday describing how Google supports three modes of use: unidentified, pseudonymous and identified.

Facebook needs an anonymity policy.

Even if Facebook remains unwilling to allow users to embrace anonymous use, its Data Use Policy could do with further refinement. The company's designers may find it worthwhile to review Raskin's suggestion that privacy policies should follow in the footsteps of Creative Commons, which has made media usage rights easy to understand.

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