Facebook beefs up privacy options, readies online chat

Facebook will introduce new privacy controls on Wednesday and, in a few weeks, add a chat client.

Facebook plans to roll out new privacy features on Wednesday that will give users more control over who sees the data stored on their profile pages.

The new privacy controls will allow users to choose which of their friends can see information such as their photo albums, mobile phone number or e-mail address. Facebook users will also be able to share information about themselves with a wider group of people, thanks to a new "friends-of-friends" feature that is also expected to be available on Wednesday.

The company has also taken efforts to make these new privacy features easy to use, said Naomi Gleit, a Facebook product manager. "We've introduced a standardized privacy interface that users will see when they're editing their privacy setting anywhere," she said.

Privacy has become a hot-button issue for Facebook since its mismanaged launch of Beacon, an online advertising tool unveiled in November.

Privacy experts blasted the program for being confusing, and computer experts soon revealed that Beacon was tracking Web behavior and secretly sending data back to Facebook without notifying users. Facebook was forced to retool the product amid a firestorm of bad publicity.

The new privacy features do not have any relationship to Beacon, but at a press event held Tuesday, the company's vice president of product management gave a frank assessment of the Beacon roll-out.

"With Beacon we just screwed it up," said Matt Cohler. "It was just poor execution on our part."

From its humble beginnings as a Web site for Harvard students four years ago, Facebook has grown to a global phenomenon, and that has at times made it difficult for the company's developers to balance things like privacy with ease-of-use, Cohler said.

Just 18 months ago, 90 percent of Facebook's users were in the U.S. Today, about two-thirds of the 67 million active members are from outside the country.

"On the one hand, we think it's important that the tools we give people are really powerful," Cohler said. "On the other hand, you have to make sure those things are really easy to use."

"That was early on a pretty easy problem for us to solve, back in the dorm in Harvard."

Cohler also confirmed rumors that Facebook plans to roll out its own Web-based chat software in the coming weeks.

The company demoed a very simple chat client that could be used to connect with other Facebook users, so long as they are logged into the Facebook Web site. Facebook chat appears as a small icon on the bottom of the Web browser that, when clicked, pops up a small chat window. Chat conversations will be archived for 90 days, although users will have the option of erasing them.

Cohler wouldn't say whether Facebook's chat software would be integrated with other chat clients, but hinted that this could be a possibility. "We want to be able to extend Facebook out into as much of your use of the Web as possible," he said. "Our vision is not to make Facebook an island."

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Robert McMillan

IDG News Service

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