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Facebook's Damage-Control Outreach

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Facebook understands that the loyalty and comfort of its 400 million users is its life blood —which means the company has some serious work to do.

In a Washington Post Op/Ed CEO Monday Mark Zuckerberg buried the lead: "In the coming weeks we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services. We are working hard to make these changes available as soon as possible. We hope you'll be pleased with the result of our work, and as always, we'll be eager to get your feedback."

Facebook's hoping to have the same success quelling concerns that it has a number of times when it's engaged with users to address privacy issues. The company's making a careful media push: in Zuckerberg's Op/Ed, in numerous blogs on Facebook's web site, and in a Q&A on NYTimes.com by VP for Public Policy Elliot Schrage. For the most part the company has emphasized the element of confusion -- it already offers controls to limit visibility of personal information. Facebook's sending the message that it hasn't done anything wrong and you shouldn't be panicking -- you should just learn to use the privacy settings.

But what do Facebook users want to hear?

It's a bad sign that millions of Facebook users have joined groups complaining about Facebook's privacy settings. One such group, "Millions against Facebook's Privacy Policies and Layout Redesign," with 2.27 million members, is promoting May 31 as "Quit Facebook Day," and teaching users how to disable Facebook's "Open Graph."

Facebook has the home court advantage—people spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook and all their information and connections is already up on the site. But they'll stop using it as much or look elsewhere if they feel there's reason for concern. That's why Facebook is hustling to launch its changes as quickly as possible. We'll see what kind of reassurance they provide.

Will any other web sites be able to profit from Facebook's privacy-related struggles? They're certainly trying. Last week MySpace launched an offensive, promoting the fact that it's simplified its privacy settings. Instead of giving MySpace members separate privacy controls over different parts of the website, users can chose to make all their info private with one quick click. But it's worth noting that while Facebook continues to grow, MySpace drew 2.5 percent viewer users in April than a year ago -- just 69.2 million.

It may be too late for MySpace to claim any cool factor, but some other up-and-coming sites are trying to use Facebook's problems to their advantage. Diaspora is a sort of anti-Facebook -- defining itself as "the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network. It's raised $180,000 and boasts on the site that it's attracted thousands of people interested in its model.

Websurfers looking for alternatives will find a ton of social networking top ten lists. There's Google Buzz, which is designed to allow Gmail users to easily share and communicate with friends. Microsoft's Window's Live allows Hotmail and Windows Messenger users to share photos and join groups. Of course there's Twitter, which is designed as a far more public forum, so it doesn't have the kind of privacy burden that Facebook carries. Whether other sites benefit from Facebook's struggles will depend on how quickly and effectively it launches a solution. And I'm talking about a technical solution, not an Op/Ed in the Washington Post.

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