Facing a user backlash that could damage its value to advertisers, social media giant Facebook Inc. is tightening its privacy protections and limiting the flow of data from its users to outside software developers.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is set to release details of the changes Wednesday, days ahead of a fledgling insurrection by thousands of users who had pledged to quit the social network that now boasts more than 400 million active users. Privacy regulators and advocacy groups in Canada, Europe and the United States have criticized recent Facebook innovations that have left customer data more exposed.
The shift is an about-face for Facebook's brash 26-year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has dismissed privacy as an old-fashioned social norm that is at odds with the ability to profit by giving advertisers and other companies more access to its customers' data and Web habits.
By bowing to his critics, Facebook appears to be acknowledging that its long-term business plan cannot succeed unless its users are more comfortable with its privacy protections, which many have found confusing and sometimes threadbare.
"We've made a bunch of mistakes," Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in an e-mail to a technology blog that was published Sunday.
The company's missteps, he said, reflect Facebook's rush to innovate. "Sometimes we move too fast - and after listening to recent concerns, we're responding."
The social network described the pending modifications as way to "simplify" its current maze of privacy settings, which offer users some 170 different options for protecting their information.
Facebook has aggressively pushed to make more of its users' personal information public in an effort to make the site more alluring to deep-pocketed advertisers that are seeking to pinpoint their marketing campaigns to specific demographic groups.
While other websites such as Blippy openly disregard traditional privacy norms by urging users to reveal credit card purchases, their websites have garnered little criticism or attention because their customer bases are so small.
Facebook, however, has become a lightning rod for Internet privacy anxieties because it has grown from dorm-room novelty at Harvard University in 2004 into the world's largest social network. Customers and privacy regulators have grown increasingly wary about the safety of personal information and pictures on the social media site because of frequent and confusing innovations or technology glitches that expose data to other users.
Privacy laws in Europe and Canada prohibit companies from revealing customer data, and the United States is moving to impose similar laws this summer. Canada's Privacy Commissioner was the first regulator to investigate Facebook's privacy practices and last year it struck a settlement with the social media company to tighten its policies.
Since then, however, the company has introduced a number of changes that have made it harder for users to protect their data and easier for outside companies to access customer information and track their Internet moves. The changes have triggered rebukes from the Privacy Commissioner and European regulators, and has triggered a formal complaint from U.S. advocacy groups to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees U.S. privacy laws.
"They had every opportunity after the Privacy Commissioner's investigation to get it right, but instead they continue to push the limits to see what they can get away with," said David Fewer, an Ottawa University law professor whose 2008 complaint with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) against Facebook triggered the regulator's investigation.
Some observers say Facebook's management must now convince its user base that privacy is indeed the company's top priority. Independent technology analyst Carmi Levy said the social network must focus all its efforts on securing its users' personal information, or it risks becoming obsolete, as many other such websites have in the past.
"[The privacy concerns are]at the root of a growing sense of discontent with the company," he said. "Facebook is at an inflection point: Either they make fundamental changes in their culture or they risk becoming the next Friendster.
"You only have so many chances with consumers and businesses alike before they seek alternatives."
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post on Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg blamed the backlash on the company's overly confusing privacy settings.
"Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex," Mark Zuckerberg wrote. "Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark."