Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the changes at a press conference. "It's been a pretty intense few weeks for us," he conceded as he described how the company had gathered a term of engineers together to address a problem that has attracted the attention government regulators in the U.S. and Europe.
Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook's recent actions had been misperceived and stressed that the company remains committed to giving users control over their information.
"The number one thing we've heard is through all these changes [is that] the settings have gotten complex and it has become hard for people to use them," he said.
Facebook's simplified privacy controls offer users one menu with three settings that determine who can see shared content: friends, friends of friends, and everyone.
This meta-setting will apply to all content shared by the user: past, present, and future.
The company's more granular controls will still be available to users who wish to use them.
Facebook is also reducing the amount of information visible through connections by giving users control over who can see their friends and pages. Facebook profiles will soon show only the user's name, profile picture (if one has been uploaded), gender (optional), and networks (if any).
The company has added a way to opt-out of the Facebook Platform completely, so users don't have to worry about their information being shared with third-party application providers.
Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a group that has supported greater privacy on Facebook, offered cautious support for the new controls.
"Facebook's users have spoken and made it clear that they want control of their information," she said in a statement. "Despite all rumors to the contrary, privacy is not dead, it is on its way to a comeback in the form of simplified controls and better policies. While more work still needs to be done, these changes are the building blocks for giving people what they want and deserve."
Josh Abraham, a security researcher with Rapid7, said it was too early to tell whether the changes would be effective in protecting users and suggested that lack of privacy is the cost of using such services.
"Web sites like Facebook and Google make money off ads and data mining their users," he said. "All those services may not cost anything, but you give up your privacy to use them."
Or as Zuckerberg put it, "We believe that people come into this wanting to share and stay connected."