Facebook changes privacy tools so users feel safe sharing

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Facebook is altering its privacy policy so that users have greater control over their shared information.

Facebook is streamlining its complicated privacy controls to give its millions of members more control over what photos, comments and personal details they share with friends, family and strangers on Facebook and beyond.

The change is considered vital as the 5-year-old social-networking service further expands its user base — now at more than 200 million — and competes with Twitter, MySpace and Google.

Twitter, in particular, has generated plenty of buzz — and viewership — as a must-see site for breaking news.

"When tools are simple, users are more likely to use them," Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

The changes should appear over the next several weeks.

The new privacy controls let Facebook "use the collective knowledge of its members to become a breaking news site," says Marissa Gluck, managing partner at Radar Research.

In the past few weeks, Twitter has become even more of a digital hub — first as a mobilizing force for Iranian citizens to communicate with the outside world during their national election and, last week, as a primary news source for many on the death of Michael Jackson.

"It leverages the strength of Facebook — the friend network — while also making it a broadcast medium similar to Twitter," says Charlene Li, founder of digital-strategy consulting firm Altimeter Group.

Privacy experts lauded the move. Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the new options solve a long-standing issue. Some Facebook users often shared provocative photos and off-color comments with workers and casual friends, creating awkward situations.

"The new settings allow greater flexibility and control," he says. But he is concerned that even if users share intimate information only with close friends, it could leave them exposed if hackers break into accounts or the government requested access to the sensitive data.

"Facebook wants to expand into the Web, but the promise it made to consumers was as a safe, private place," says Jeremiah Owyang, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Facebook is going through adolescence — from a private area for teenagers to a public person of the online community."

The move could also improve Facebook's standing with some major advertisers. People who set their status updates to "everyone" and mention a product or a brand name will make their way to the Internet, says Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at eMarketer.

Previously, it was impossible for marketers to know unless they heard directly from a Facebook member, she says.