Facebook has long been criticised by privacy advocacy groups and by data protection regulators over the way it handles the information that users upload to the social networking site.
It has been censured in the past for setting default options that shared more information than regulators thought was desirable, and for making it too difficult for users to understand what was being shared and to restrict it.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has now announced a feature which allows Facebook users to see more easily what data Facebook's applications have access to and what information they are using.
"We're launching a new dashboard to give you visibility into how applications use your data to personalize your experience," said Zuckerberg in a blog post. "As you start having more social and personalized experiences across the web, it's important that you can verify exactly how other sites are using your information to make your experience better."
"As this rolls out, in your Facebook privacy settings, you will have a single view of all the applications you've authorized and what data they use. You can also see in detail when they last accessed your data. You can change the settings for an application to make less information available to it, or you can even remove it completely," he said.
Digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) welcomed the change, and the fact that the information is in the 'privacy settings' part of the site, where people concerned about their privacy are most likely to find it.
"We think that this is an important step forward in terms of providing more transparency to users about where their Facebook data is going and who’s using it," said an EFF analysis of the changes. "However, we hope that Facebook will soon take a few steps farther, both by providing a more complete picture of how much information is going to the apps that you install, and also by providing information about how much information is going to the apps that your friends have installed."
"This would help address privacy concerns over the 'app gap,' by which Facebook apps that your friends install can access your information even if you don’t use the app yourself," it said.
The EFF recommended that Facebook allow users to see not just the last information used by an application, but all the use, so that users can determine what the pattern of usage is.
Facebook also announced a feature that would enable users to keep track of the information they are sharing by allowing them to download a single file containing everything they have uploaded to the site.
That file will contain all your Facebook communications, your messages to friends, status updates and posted information, Zuckerberg said.
The company has also created a feature that allows its users to communicate with smaller groups of people than all their friends, called Facebook Groups. The company said that this will help to keep some information private from other groups of people.
The EFF welcomed the ability of users to download, and therefore transfer to another service provider, all their data, but said that Facebook still fell short of acceptable privacy standards.
"In June of this year, EFF, the ACLU of Northern California, and a coalition of privacy groups wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging Facebook to give users true control over their personal data by taking six critical steps to protect members' information," it said. "Facebook's response to the privacy group letter was only notably positive on one step: protecting the privacy of users’ communications with the site by using HTTPS encryption, which remains a work in progress."
"Today, we are delighted that Facebook implemented another one of these steps, by making it far easier to export user's uploaded information. However, the remaining steps are important, and we will continue our dialogue with Facebook on each of these issues," said the EFF statement.
One of Facebook's most outspoken critics has been Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. She said last month that an investigation she had conducted into Facebook had concluded to her satisfaction after changes made by the company.
"The changes Facebook has put in place in response to concerns we raised as part of our investigation last year are reasonable and meet the expectations set out under Canadian privacy law," she said in a statement.
"While we are satisfied that the changes address the concerns raised during our investigation, there is still room for improvement in some areas," said Stoddart. "We’ve asked Facebook to continue to improve its oversight of application developers and to better educate them about their privacy responsibilities. We have also cautioned Facebook against expanding the categories of user information made available to everyone on the Internet – and over which users cannot control through privacy settings."
"As well, we had recommended that Facebook make its default settings for photo albums more restrictive than 'everyone on the Internet' – though this concern has been mitigated to a large extent by Facebook’s per-object privacy tool," said the statement.