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Price of Facebook Privacy? Start Clicking

Nick Bilton|The New York Times
Thursday, 13 May 2010 | 11:47 AM ET

Pop quiz: Which is longer, the United States Constitution or Facebook’s Privacy Policy?

If you guessed the latter, you’re right. Facebook’s Privacy Policy is 5,830 words long; the United States Constitution, without any of its amendments, is a concise 4,543 words.

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Facebook, one of the most popular social networks in the world, has more than 400 million registered people on its Web site. Half of these users log in to the service every day, the company says, and users spend 500 billion minutes on the site each month.

But in recent months, Facebook has revised its privacy policy to require users to opt out if they wish to keep information private, making most of that information public by default. Some personal data is now being shared with third-party Web sites.

As a result, the company has come under a blitz from privacy groups, government officials and its own users, who complain that the new policy is bewildering and the new opt-out settings too time-consuming to figure out and use.

“There are always trade-offs between providing comprehensive and precise granular controls and offering simple tools that may be broad and blunt,” said Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy at Facebook. “We have tried to offer the most comprehensive and detailed controls and comprehensive and detailed information about them.”

The new opt-out settings certainly are complex. Facebook users who hope to make their personal information private should be prepared to spend a lot of time pressing a lot of buttons. To opt out of full disclosure of most information, it is necessary to click through more than 50 privacy buttons, which then require choosing among a total of more than 170 options.

Users must decide if they want only friends, friends of friends, everyone on Facebook, or a customized list of people to see things like their birthdays or their most recent photos. To keep information as private as possible, users must select “only friends” or “only me” from the pull-down options for all the choices in the privacy settings, and must uncheck boxes that say information will be shared across the Web.

Facebook’s “Help Center” is available to assist users, but the word count for the privacy-related FAQ adds up to more than 45,000 words.

Even if a user changes all the settings on the privacy section of the site, certain pieces of information will still be shared across the site unless a user takes further action. For example, under the Account Settings option, in the Facebook Ads tab, two options are automatically turned on to share some information with advertising networks and friends. Anyone who wants to keep this information private must uncheck the boxes in that tab.

And still, some information will no longer remain private because Facebook has also added a feature, called community pages, which automatically links personal data, like hometown or university, to topic pages for that town or university. The only way to disappear from those topic pages is to delete personal data from Facebook.

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  • Matt Hunter is the senior technology editor at CNBC.com.

  • Cadie Thompson is a tech reporter for the Enterprise Team for CNBC.com.

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.

  • Jon Fortt is an on-air editor. He covers the companies, start-ups, and trends that are driving innovation in the industry.

  • Lipton is CNBC's technology correspondent, working from CNBC's Silicon Valley bureau.

  • Mark is CNBC's Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bureau Chief covering technology and digital media.