March 19, 2008

Facebook Beefs Up Privacy and Plans New Chat Feature

Popular online social-networking site Facebook said Tuesday it is introducing new privacy control features that will give its 67 million users the ability to exert greater control over which of their friends are allowed to view the personal details they post.

Executives from the company made the announcement to reporters at its Palo Alto, California headquarters.

Facebook was founded in 2004 as a social site for Harvard University students, but swiftly spread to other colleges and work places. The site's popularity is due in large part to the convenience it provides its users in sharing details of their lives with selected online friends and family.

Although Facebook has always had a greater degree of privacy controls than its popular rivals, the site has nevertheless been the target of two user backlashes in response to new features many thought exposed private information to a wide viewing audience.

Matt Cohler, Facebook's vice president of product management, told Reuters the company was seeking to grow beyond its initial set of privacy controls that were originally geared towards college-aged users. 

"We have a lot more users, a lot more types of users, a lot more relationships, we have a lot more types of relationships," Cohler said.

However, in a statement the company said only one quarter of its existing users have taken control of their privacy using Facebook's existing personal information settings.

Use of Facebook has grown 500 percent over the past 18 months. Two-thirds of Facebook's users are now located outside the United States, compared with about 10 percent a year and a half ago when most members were young adults within the United States.

Once the new features are available, Facebook members will be able to control access to details about themselves by creating and managing lists of friends that are given different levels of access. Users can already control what individual friends see on a member's profile.

The new group privacy controls utilize "friends lists," a feature the company introduced in December that allows members to organize their network of friends and family into groups. These private lists also allow users to target messages to selected friends or filter which personal details certain groups can view. Users will be able to create up to 100 different "friends lists."

The company said its new privacy controls would be available early Wednesday morning, Pacific Standard Time.

Late last year, Facebook allowed users to disable a controversial feature called Beacon that monitored the Web sites its users visited. The company's chief executive Mark Zuckerberg later apologized for not responding sooner to privacy complaints.

Beacon is a way to keep a user's network of Facebook friends informed of  their Web surfing habits. Critics contend this transformed Facebook from a members-only site known for privacy protections into a paper trail of one's entire Web activities.

In response to a petition signed by 50,000 users, the company backed away and let users have the option to opt out of the Beacon feature.

Cohler said the company faces a "classic Silicon Valley dilemma" between adding new features, making sure they are easy to use by the widest number of people, and also protecting members from unexpected personal revelations.

The company also confirmed recent reports it is working on a new instant messaging chat application that would run inside Facebook and allow users to hold back-and- forth chat with their friends on the site. Known as Facebook Chat, the new feature will be introduced in a matter of weeks. It will work inside a Web browser without requiring users to download any special software, similar to other one-on-one chat services such as Meebo.com.


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