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Facebook to Look at Privacy Issues

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives will meet with employees to discuss privacy practices of the world’s largest social networking website on Thursday, as criticism grows about the way it treats its 400 million users’ personal information.

Facebook will not make any announcements about privacy changes at the meeting, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters.

The meeting comes a few weeks after Facebook unveiled a variety of new features designed to make its service integrate more easily into other websites.

Some of the changes, including a so-called “instant personalization” feature that automatically imports Facebook users’ personal profile information into the music site Pandora and the user-review site Yelp, have provoked sharp criticism among privacy advocates.

Earlier this month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a coalition of 14 other advocacy groups filed a complaint to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission blasting Facebook for disclosing user information to third-parties without user consent.

Several U.S. senators have also recently expressed concern about Facebook’s privacy practices.

In an emailed a statement about Thursday’s privacy meeting, Facebook said the company has “an open culture and it should come as no surprise that we’re providing a forum for employees to ask questions on a topic that has received a lot of outside interest.”

Thursday’s internal meeting was first reported by the blog, which reported that Facebook could potentially announce changes to the instant personalization feature at the event.

Zuckerberg, who regularly addresses the Facebook staff every Friday at a question-and-answer session, will probably provide brief opening remarks at Thursday’s meeting before opening the discussion to questions, the source told Reuters.

“It’s really putting everyone who has thoughts to share together in a room and talk about it,” the person said.

Facebook is increasingly challenging established Web players like Yahoo Inc and Google Inc for consumers’ online time and for advertising dollars.

As a private company, Facebook does not disclose its financials, though industry estimates for its 2009 revenue range from $500 million to $650 million — still just a fraction of the nearly $24 billion at Google or the $6.5 billion at Yahoo.

But the company’s growing trove of information about its users is seen as a valuable commodity to advertisers, who can use the data to better target marketing messages to various groups of people.

Facebook, which was created in a Harvard dorm room in 2004, has repeatedly faced privacy concerns as the social networking service has evolved and grown over the years.

A 2007 initiative dubbed Beacon, which published Facebook users’ activity at other websites to their Facebook news feed, triggered a strong backlash. And the company faced objections last year when it rolled out changes to privacy settings that made certain information viewable to everyone on the service, instead of just to friends on Facebook.

Copyright 2010 Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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