Facebook today went live with new privacy settings the company announced this summer. The new settings purport to give users more control of the ways their information is shared, but the default settings (which most users never touch) are set to send user data to the greater web.

Why is that? Because for Facebook to capitalize on its store of in depth user information, it needs to make that information public.

Facebook has been playing catch up in the realm of real-time data these past few months, trying to keep up with advancements in social sharing that have been led by microblogging service Twitter. A few months ago, the company made its status updates public to the entire Facebook comnunity and today, Chris Cox, Facebook’s vice president for product development, said in a call with reporters that his company has learned from sites like Twitter, where the default is “publishing to the entire world.”

The new changes allow for users to decide on how specific pieces of
information — like a post or picture — are shared online, rather than
update their universal privacy settings. However, the default setting for users who have never touched their privacy settings will be to share their information with Google. Phone numbers and email addresses will be given extra privacy, but most user information will be now be available to search engines.

Sharing social information gets increasingly difficult as more private data goes online, but Facebook is hoping it can navigate that terrain. Cox told reporters today:

“There is a lot of value when the default is that everyone can see what
they are posting. And there is a lot of value in a service
in letting people choose the granularity of how they share. That’s the
service we are trying to build.”

But according to Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of communications and public policy, only about 15% to 20% of the site’s 350 million members have adjusted their privacy settings. That means hundreds of millions of users
will now be publishing to the entire net every time they update their status.

Predictably, privacy advocates are not pleased. The ACLU has started a petition, asking Mark Zuckerberg to “fix the app gap” and give users more control over their personal data.

The advocacy group says that users must click to an extra page to strengthen privacy settings in most cases, which puts too much burden on the user to achieve the appropriate levels of privacy. That’s because it’s in Facebook’s interest to have its users share more information online.

The company also announced
today that 60 million of its users utilize Facebook Connect each month
on more than 80,000 web sites, one year after the program’s launch. Facebook Connect publishes users’ activity as they travel around the web to connected websites and updates to their Facebook streams. That is a growing amount of information becoming available to brands and advertisers every day. 

As Fred Vogelstein wrote in Wired this summer in “Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network’s Plan to Dominate the Internet — and Keep Google Out,” Facebook wants to be at the center of user activity online, but privacy is a recurring problem for the social net:

“It has a massive storehouse of user data, but every time it tries to
capitalize on that information, its members freak out. This isn’t an
academic problem; the company’s future depends on its ability to master
the art of behavioral targeting—selling customized advertising based on
user profiles. In theory, this should be an irresistible opportunity
for marketers; Facebook’s performance advertising program allows them
to design and distribute an ad to as narrow an audience as they would
like. (It has also developed a program to create ads that are designed
to be spread virally.) But as the Beacon debacle showed, there is a
fine line between “targeted and useful” and “creepy and stalkerish”—and
so far, not enough advertisers have been willing to walk that line.”

If Facebook can convince users that they want to share the majority of their information with the world, it will be a lot easier to use that information on the business side. Facebook made the default option sharing because it makes the network a bigger player in the real-time space, but that only works if a mass quantity of users agree to put their information on search engines. And the company is hoping that offering the option of privatizing information will be enough to fend off privacy battles. 

Having Facebook user information more widely available is in keeping with the trend toward oversharing online, but it also makes the user information on the social net infinitely more valuable.

Images: Facebook