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Facebook CEO Zuckerberg announces new privacy tools

http://voices.washingtonpost.com

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday announced what he described as simplified privacy tools for the social networking platform's more than 400 million users.

"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."

In a news conference at Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters, Zuckerberg called the changes a "pretty big overhaul," saying engineers and designers have been huddled in a conference for the past three weeks working on the new tools.

The changes, which will be introduced over the next few weeks, will allow a user to apply one click to block any third-party sites from tapping into Facebook's goldmine of data on that user. A similar one-click option would allow a user to stop applications on Facebook from getting user information unless told otherwise. And in a reverse to a confusing feature introduced last December, a user will be presented with a more simple option on who gets to see their information.

Instead of being forced to customize every status update and photo for a "friend" or more broadly, information from employment history to a vacation video can be put into one bucket designated either for friends, friends of friends or everyone on the Internet.

All of the changes will be on a new privacy settings page. users who liked the old way can continue to tailor each piece of information they have on their site for friends, friends of friends or everyone.

Here's Facebook's blog post on the announcement by Zuckerberg. (Disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors.)

Facebook felt a backlash of complaints with new customized settings forced on users last December. And last month, a program called "instant connect" drew criticism from users and privacy groups for sharing some user information with outside Web sites.

Zuckerberg chalked up the stumble to growing pains.

"A big part of the challenge that we've had is that we've grown from tens of thousands of users to hundreds of millions," Zuckerberg said in the news conference announcing the changes. "It's been a big shift along the way, and it hasn't always been smooth."

Privacy groups commended the company for the changes, calling the announcement a good first step.

"Specifically, Facebook restored earlier privacy settings, simplified those privacy settings and made 'instant personalization' almost opt-in. Those are good changes," said Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center, a privacy advocacy group.

But he said Washington regulators need to launch hearings and investigations into a growing list of examples where Internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo have misused user data or collected sensitive data without users' permission.

The changes come amid movement by regulators to create new rules for the road on how Web sites can treat user data. A House bill introduced last month seeks to balance the privacy of users and what user information can be used by advertisers. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) sent a letter Wednesday to Google CEO Eric Schmidt demanding answers to a dozen questions about what kinds of information Google collected through Street View and what it planned 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.

Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized Facebook earlier this month for its sharing of information to third-party sites and called for an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. He said Facebook's announcement deserved credit for responding to complaints by changing its privacy tools.

"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 in a statement.

Privacy advocates and Schumer said the best protections would be to set a default that restricts the sharing of data unless volunteered by the user (known as opt-in).

"Think there is a balance that we want to find that is unique to each product," Zuckerberg said in the interview. "Some things are opt-in and some things should be opt-out, but we want to assess that on a product by product basis."