May 26, 2010 7:44 pm

Facebook acts to appease critics on privacy

Facebook on Wednesday reversed some of the recent controversial changes that have led to more personal data about its 500m users being made public, as it sought to quell a transatlantic backlash over online privacy.

The concessions from the web’s biggest social networking site were enough to win grudging support from privacy advocates in the US. However, early reaction in Europe, where regulators generally take a stricter line, suggested it could face pressure to backtrack further.

The move follows months of wrangling between the company and its critics and comes as Facebook is facing regulatory scrutiny around the globe. Concern has mounted over the past year as it has made far-reaching changes to its privacy policies, leading to more information about its users being made public automatically and allowing Facebook to hand information about them to other internet companies so they can personalise their online services.

While giving users new controls to limit these new freedoms, the company conceded on Wednesday that these had been made too complex.

At an event at Facebook headquarters in California, the company’s 26-year-old chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, admitted that it had not kept up with the ways people were using the site, but that the new controls would offer more privacy.

“The settings have gotten complex and it has gotten hard for people to use them and effectively control their information,” said Mr Zuckerberg. “This is a pretty big overhaul to the system we have.”

Beginning soon, users will choose among three categories – their friends, friends-of-friends or everyone on the site – when deciding who should see their information, and that setting will apply to all their actions on the site, the company said.

Facebook also said that some information that it had recently forced users to make public, such as their network of contacts, could be made private again. And it introduced an opt-out so that users can prevent information being given to other website publishers.

Privacy campaigners in Washington welcomed the changes, though they warned this was one victory in a longer battle.

“The fact that it took so much political pressure on both sides of the Atlantic suggests there’s a long-term problem...with Facebook,” said Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy. “They’re constantly pushing the bar [on privacy].”

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