Facebook Aims To Quell Users' Privacy Fears

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On Tuesday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York City, Facebook's Vice President of Product Chris Cox said Facebook will institute "drastically simplified" privacy settings Wednesday in response to users' concerns over how the company uses their profile information.

For the past couple of years, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has drifting toward Scott McNealy territory in making the case that online privacy is no longer the "social norm." But Facebook has apparently woken up to the fact that a significant portion of nearly 500 million users are scared as hell over the company's designs on their personal information.

In a Monday Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post, Zuckerberg offered a mea culpa of sorts and acknowledged that Facebook should have been more upfront about its privacy policies.

"Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lot of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark," Zuckerberg wrote in the piece. He also denied that Facebook gives advertisers access to users' profile information and gets a cut of its sale to third parties.

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Still, this message may take some time to get through given the widespread memes that have been circulating for the past several months on Facebook. Often posted in users' status updates, these messages usually claim that Facebook's new privacy policies authorize the company to harvest everything except for users' vital organs.

Meanwhile, the kerfuffle over Facebook's privacy policies is opening doors within the social networking space. Several startups have cropped up that lead with the message that users' personal data is sacrosanct, including Diaspora, an open-source, decentralized social networking project being developed by four New York University students.

Enterprising developers are also getting into the act. Reclaimprivacy.org's new privacy scanner examines Facebook users' profiles and alerts users to potential holes through which personal information could be exposed. And security vendor Untangle's SaveFace tool sets all profile information to the "friends only" setting.

Facebook once looked destined to rule the roost in social networking, and perhaps that realization gave it confidence that users valued the service more than they feared its privacy-infringing implications. Now a large portion of Facebook's user base will be paying attention to the revamped privacy policies to see if the social networking site has learned any lessons from the controversy it finds itself in.