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Privacy protection gets more complicated in age of Facebook

Protecting your privacy used to be as easy as closing the shades to the prying eyes of nosy neighbors.

But in the age of Facebook, privacy protection has become much more complicated and increasingly controversial.

"It used to be you'd share something at Starbucks with one or two people," said Modesto resident Nelson Ramos, who checks Facebook every day. "Now you share simultaneously with the 150 or so people who are your friends. And then that's compounded by friends of friends. And then the applications. So your news may really go out to thousands of people at once."

The social media giant recently was ranked the No. 1 most visited site on the Web by Google, with more than 540 million users. But it has come under increasing fire from users and privacy experts over the way it handles its members' personal information.

The company recently made changes to its privacy settings in an attempt to simplify the process. But it's still not enough to satisfy some users.

Salida resident Stephanie Simmons is a self-described Facebook junkie, but said she is careful and conscientious about keeping her information private.

The 40-year-old said she has been frustrated recently by how Facebook constantly changes its privacy settings.

"I've been extremely upset with them," she said. "One of my problems is that they tend to change things without notifying people. You have to go in and find the new spot and make sure they're not sharing something new all of a sudden."

The changes include "instant personalization," which automatically shares user profiles with partner sites such as Yelp and Pandora.

The moves have prompted a backlash and grass-roots campaigns. Memorial Day was declared Quit Facebook Day, when users were urged to delete their accounts as a protest.

In response to public outcry, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said the company is making it easier for users to keep their information private.

"One of the big takeaways is just don't mess with the privacy stuff for a long time," Zuckerberg said at a press conference last week.

Under the simplified controls, privacy preferences would extend to users' list of interests, including their "likes." Previously, users could hide their likes on their profiles, but they still would show up elsewhere.

He also said it would be easier to opt out of the instant personalization settings.

In a statement, the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based advocacy group, said that "while more work still needs to be done, these changes are the building blocks for giving people what they want and deserve."

Still, navigating the privacy settings can be tricky. A new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project said that younger users are more likely than older users to understand and manage their privacy on social networking sites.

The Pew study found that social networkers ages 18 to 29 were the most likely to change the privacy settings on their profiles to limit what they share with others online. Seventy-one percent of users in that age bracket, compared with 55 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, changed their settings.

About two-thirds of all social networkers who were surveyed said they've tightened security settings.

The survey showed that younger people tend to be less trusting of social media sites and more likely to delete comments or postings on their profiles.

Mary Madden, the Pew study's lead author, said the findings partly reflect the fact that young people have been using social networking longer than their elders, thus making them more experienced in dealing with its intricacies.

But she said young people are at a point in their lives when they're looking for work and just starting to develop a name for themselves.

The study found that a quarter of online adults said their employers have policies about how they portray themselves online.

Ceres resident Jenn Hurtado, 33, said she she is conscientious about what she posts and shares on Facebook. All her privacy settings are "friends only." She said since she has been looking for work, protecting her personal information is more important than ever.

"I had to do a cleaning, I had to be a little bit more censored on my part as who I allowed to have my friends and what information I let leak out," she said. "A lot of this is personal responsibility, it's not all Facebook's fault. Because nothing that is on there is private, really. So you have to decide yourself what to put out there."

It's a sentiment shared by Simmons, who also has been looking for work and is hyperaware of what is on her Facebook profile for potential employers to see.

She said she frequently helps friends and older relatives negotiate the site's privacy settings, too.

"It's very difficult for the older generation," she said. "I have aunts and uncles and other family members who are technologically challenged. They never had to use computers for work, but now they've gotten their first computer and are enjoying connecting with friends and family. But they're also susceptible. They are so trusting. They didn't have these privacy issues before."

Despite the privacy grumbles, users such as Ramos said the site's pluses outweigh its problems. Ultimately, he said, it's up to each person to police his or her own information.

"I think this is just indicative of social media," said the 59-year-old. "A lot of attention has been put on Facebook, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.

"It's something all the services are going to address. This is an open door to your life."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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