Anyone joining Facebook from Thursday will only share their posts with friends and family, unless they explicitly choose to make their information open to everyone online, according to a post on the company's blog. The change will not affect its existing 1.28bn account holders, who will be prompted to carry out a "privacy check-up".
Facebook is facing stiff competition from a wave of social apps such as Snapchat, Secret and WhatsApp – which it recently acquired for $19bn (£11bn) – that have made discretion a selling point. The company's privacy product manager, Mike Nowak, said the decision to reduce the risk of new users over-sharing was taken in response to feedback from its subscribers.
"If people share more publicly than they want to be sharing, that doesn't benefit us because it leads to bad experiences over time," said Nowak. "We want people's first impressions of Facebook to be as awesome as possible, and we know it's worse to accidentally overshare than to accidentally undershare."
When it first allowed users to share posts publicly in 2009, the default setting was public, allowing anyone else online to see them. Facebook's decision was a hit with online advertisers eager to glean as much data as possible on its millions of users, but has been a constant source of concern for the public.
In 2011, the company was forced into a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, vowing to never make deceptive claims about its privacy procedures and agreeing to independent reviews of its practices.
Most recently, Facebook is being sued by a group of parents on whether it can use their children's images in adverts without consent.
For the last decade, Facebook has pushed the boundaries of privacy, encouraging and occasionally forcing account holders to share increasing amounts of information. But Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA have encouraged Silicon Valley's technology companies to take a stand on protecting their users' information, and regulators in Europe and America have begun to act to protect the rights of individuals online.
Last week, the European court of Justice ruled against Google, in favour of a complainant arguing for the right to be forgotten by the search engine.
"They have gotten enough privacy black eyes at this point that I tend to believe they realised they have to take care of consumers a lot better," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the campaign group World Privacy Forum.
This spring, Facebook introduced a privacy mascot in the shape of a blue dinosaur, dubbed "Zuckersaurus" after the social network's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, which pops up as people are about to release posts, prompting the user to make sure they are not sharing more widely than they intended.
In its post on the change, Facebook said: "While some people want to post to everyone, others have told us that they are more comfortable sharing with a smaller group, like just their friends. We recognise that it is much worse for someone to accidentally share with everyone when they actually meant to share just with friends, compared with the reverse."
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