Facebook has launched new privacy features to give users more control over who sees the data stored on their profile pages.
At the same time, the social networking site has confirmed rumours that it will roll out its own web-based chat software in the coming weeks.
The new privacy controls allow users to choose which of their friends can see information such as their photo albums, mobile phone number or email 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' function.
The company has also taken measures to make these new privacy features easy to use, said Naomi Gleit, a Facebook product manager. "We've introduced a standardised privacy interface that users will see when they're editing their privacy setting anywhere," she said.
Privacy has become a hot 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 behaviour 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 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."
As Facebook has mushroomed from a website for Harvard students four years ago into a social networking site with 67 million users (two-thirds outside the US), the company's developers have sometimes found it difficult to balance things like privacy with ease-of-use, Cohler admitted.
Meanwhile, the company has demoed a very simple webchat client that could be used to connect with other Facebook users, so long as they are logged into the Facebook website. 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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