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Facebook CEO announces revamped privacy settings

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; A21

Facebook's founder presented new one-click options Wednesday to help subscribers protect their privacy, responding to a torrent of complaints that it had become far too hard to determine and control levels of protection.

In a news conference, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg chalked up recent stumbles to growing pains. He said that engineers and designers had holed up in a conference room in their Palo Alto offices over the past three weeks to work on new privacy settings.

"We don't pretend that we are perfect," Zuckerberg said in an interview. "We try to build new things, hear feedback and respond with changes to that feedback all the time."

The changes, which will be introduced over the next few weeks, mean that one click can block any third-party sites from tapping into Facebook's goldmine of data on a user. A similar one-click option will allow a user to stop applications on Facebook from tapping user information unless told otherwise. And in a reversal of a confusing feature introduced in December, users will be presented with simpler options on who gets to see information.

Instead of being forced to customize every status update and photo for a "friend" or more broadly, users can put information such as employment history and vacation videos into buckets designated either for friends, friends of friends or everyone on the Internet. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is on Facebook's board.)

The changes come amid growing scrutiny from U.S. and European regulators over the privacy practices of Internet giants such as Facebook and Google. The European Union told Google, Yahoo and Microsoft on Wednesday that their search engines don't comply with European privacy laws and told them to prove they are making user information anonymous.

Key U.S. lawmakers separately sent a letter to Google's chief executive asking how the company vacuumed up e-mail and other personal data from WiFi residential networks through its mapping program Street View.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) wrote to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt demanding answers to a dozen questions about what kinds of information Google collects through Street View and what it plans to do with that information.

"As we have said before, this was a mistake. Google did nothing illegal, and we look forward to answering questions from these congressional leaders," Google said in a statement.

"There is certainly more awareness of Internet privacy, and a lot of that is also the recognition that technology is way, way ahead of regulation," said Miriam Wugmeister, a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster who specializes in privacy.

The recent wave of criticism of Facebook began in December, when users were caught off guard with new tools that they found confusing and that in some cases made user information more broadly available to other Web sites and anyone searching the Internet.

A program introduced last month, "instant personalization," shared user information -- such as an individual's preferences and those of their friends -- with other Web sites. Privacy groups filed complaints with regulators, and thousands of users joined sites pledging to quit Facebook.

"If you find these changes helpful, then we plan to keep this privacy framework for a long time," Zuckerberg said. "That means you won't need to worry about changes. (Believe me, we're probably happier about this than you are.)"

Zuckerberg blamed the problems on the growth of Facebook, which has expanded from tens of thousands of users to hundreds of millions. "It's been a big shift along the way, and it hasn't always been smooth," he said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Facebook's announcement a good first step. He had criticized Facebook this month for sharing information to third-party sites and called for an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

"The effectiveness of the proposal will be judged by how prominently displayed and easily accessed the opt-out option is for the user," he said.

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