Facebook Gets Comfortable With Anonymity (for Other People's Apps)

Zuckerberg speaking today at Facebook's F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco Photograph by Erin Lubin/Bloomberg

Facebook’s company line is that the Internet works better when people use their real names at all times. In an acknowledgement that not everyone agrees, the company has built a way for people to sign into other mobile applications anonymously.

Mobile apps that require a Facebook log-in have consistently bothered some users. Facebook’s approach to privacy has been uneven at best, and it can be unclear exactly what you’re agreeing to when logging into a mobile application using a Facebook account. “We don’t ever want anyone to be surprised with how they’re sharing on Facebook,” said Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of the giant social network, at Facebook’s developer conference on Wednesday. The anonymity feature is one of several new tools designed to give user more control over what they’re allowing app developers to do with their data.

Using an anonymous log-in doesn’t withhold any information from Facebook itself. Facebook serves as a go-between, giving users a pseudonym to communicate with app developers. When someone logs in anonymously with Facebook, the app will recognize the person by an identifier Facebook provides. If you have the same app on your tablet and your phone, Facebook will tell the app that you are the same person when you log in.

This could allow people the convenience of Facebook log-ins without having to spread personal information around the Internet. Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to see this as something people will use in perpetuity, rather as a sort of trial process on the way toward connecting to an app with a Facebook account. “The idea here is that, even if you don’t want an app to know who you are yet, you want a streamlined process for logging in,” said Zuckerberg. “This is going to allow you to try apps without fear.” A developer would have to choose to include the option to log in anonymously.

Once users have decided an app is trustworthy, they can connect it to a Facebook profile and allow, say, the posting of automatic status updates, or access other parts of an account. The company also announced a series of more granular controls, giving users line-by-line control over what information they want to share with app developers. (Facebook had already allowed users to log into an application with a Facebook account while specifically denying the application the right to post anything to their Facebook accounts.)

This doesn’t change Facebook’s general philosophy on online identities. Zuckerberg thinks anonymity discourages the social connections at the center of Facebook’s service and business model. “I tend to think some of these interactions are better rooted in some sense of building relationships,” he told the New York Times earlier this month. “That’s core to how we think about the world. So anonymity is not the first thing that we’ll go do.”

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