Facebook announced efforts to better guard the privacy of its more than 400 million users, addressing mounting pressure on the world’s most popular online social network to protect personal data exchanged on its site.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said on Wednesday his company would soon make it easier for users to change privacy settings, giving them more powerful tools to prevent their personal information from being accessed by others.
Still, he said Facebook’s default settings will continue to make it relatively easy for users to obtain information about each other as the company treads a delicate balance between protecting privacy rights and promoting social networking over the Internet.
“Users use the service because they love sharing information,” Zuckerberg said. “People perceive that as we don’t care about privacy, but that’s absolutely not true. … There is a balance.”
While Facebook said it will make it simpler for users to boost their privacy safeguards, they will have to opt out of default policies by which much of their data is publicly available, Zuckerberg said.
Among the changes, Facebook will make it simple for users to block all third-party applications providers from accessing their information. It will also make less information available in its user directory.
Controversy about Facebook’s privacy policies has mounted over the past year as its membership has grown and criminals have increasingly used its vast data banks to access information to help them swindle its users.
A month ago four U.S. senators told the company they objected to a recent changes that made a user’s current city, hometown, likes, interests and friends publicly available. That information had previously only been seen by friends.
One of those lawmakers, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said on Wednesday that Facebook’s new privacy controls represented a significant first step in addressing his concerns.
“Facebook has heard the call of its users and realizes that much greater privacy protections are needed,” Schumer said in a statement.
But he added that he would prefer that Facebook only share its users’ information if they opt-in to doing so, rather than using the current opt-out system.
“One cannot know how successful any opt-out system is until users actually experience it. The effectiveness of the proposal will be judged by how prominently displayed and easily accessed the opt-out option is for the user. We will be monitoring this carefully.”
Zuckerberg said that requiring users to opt-in to sharing their personal information would go against the spirit of social networking, making it difficult for users to identify friends and forge new online friendships.
Palo Alto, California-based Facebook is a private company and does not disclose financial data, though analyst estimates for its 2009 revenue range from $500 million to $650 million, primarily from selling online ads targeted at users based on their activity and profile information on Facebook.
The controversy over privacy has not prevented Facebook from posting astonishing growth over the past year. Analysts expect the service to reach half a billion users in the next several weeks, up from 150 million users in January 2009.
(Reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by John Wallace and Richard Chang)