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Facebook holding staff meeting on privacy as criticism grows

May 13, 2010 |  3:37 pm

Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg and other executives planned to field questions from employees Thursday afternoon amid growing criticism of how the popular social networking site treats the personal information of its more than 400 million users.

Zuck Facebook downplayed the all-hands meeting, saying it would not be making any changes to new features announced three weeks ago that some say invade their privacy.

The meeting comes as lawmakers, privacy watchdogs and technology pundits take issue with new features that were automatically rolled out without users' explicit consent.

Last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and 14 other consumer groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. This week, the European Union also took issue with the new features. Charts tracking the erosion of privacy on Facebook have been posted. Technology pundits and bloggers have offered their opinions; some have warned that Facebook may be risking damage to its brand.

Some prominent bloggers have “deactivated,” or deleted, their Facebook accounts. On Wednesday’s episode of “This Week in Google,” host Leo Laporte said he searched WikiHow to figure out how to delete his account. Searchengineland.com editor Danny Sullivan said that traffic to WikiHow had exploded and that Google searches for “how do I delete my facebook account” had soared.

"That's it. It's gone," Laporte said during the show. "And I think that's the right thing to do."

Facebook has argued that it is giving users more control over their privacy not less. And it’s looking to beef up its presence in Washington to defend its privacy practices to Congress and federal regulators.

Privacy issues have been a recurrent problem. A 2007 feature called Beacon, which published Facebook users' activity at other websites in their Facebook news feeds, triggered such a strong backlash that the company scrapped it. Last year the company faced another controversy when it changed privacy settings to make some information publicly available.

Yet Facebook remains the Web’s hottest property, challenging Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. for consumers’ attention and advertising dollars. And that’s what has helped fuel this firestorm. The company has a massive treasure chest of user information that could be very valuable to advertisers.

Some see Facebook's new features as a stepping stone to pushing users to make more of that data readily available.

One feature is a “Like” button that publishers install on their websites to allow people to more easily share content with their Facebook friends. The “Like” feature is public, so others can see what users liked.

The more controversial feature is called instant personalization, a pilot program with three partner websites in which Facebook automatically sends information to the sites about the user so they can tailor content to the user’s interests.

Facebook is expected to unveil a new feature that users would use to reveal their location in status updates.

-- Jessica Guynn 

Photo: Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

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