Facebook calls all-hands meeting on privacy for Thursday

Social network confirms that Facebook workers will gather today to discuss widespread criticism

Facebook Inc. execs have called an all-company meeting today to discuss widespread criticism of the social network's privacy policies.

In an e-mail to Computerworld this morning, a Facebook spokesman confirmed that the company will hold a meeting later today to discuss privacy issues, but he would not say whether executives are looking to make significant changes to the popular site's highly contentious privacy policies.

"We have 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," said Andrew Noyes, the Facebook spokesman.

Noyes would not comment on whether Facebook also plans to announce any changes to the policy today, or if officials are working on new privacy tools.

The blogosphere, though, is heating up quickly with rampant conjecture about today's meeting, since it comes on the heels of the latest brouhaha from critics about privacy protections on the site.

Last month, Facebook unveiled a bevy of tools aimed at extending the social network's reach across the Web by letting user information be shared with third-party Web sites.

That move stirred up a hornets' nest of controversy from critics who said that users shouldn't have to share personal information with other Web sites unless they opt into the program.

The moves gained the attention of Congress, whose criticism prompted a meeting between Facebook officials and the staff of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

And yesterday, a coalition of European data protection officials called the Facebook changes "unacceptable."

In an interview with Computerworld last week, Ethan Beard, director of the Facebook site's developer network, defended Facebook's policies and even said users love the changes that the company has made.

"People are actively opting in to engage with the social Web," said Beard. "The response from users speaks very, very loudly that they love what we're doing. I think there's a lot of other talk that's not coming from users necessarily. There's been a lot of interest from the media, from organizations and officials."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, however, said that Facebook is looking down the barrel at some significant user pushback unless the privacy issues are resolved.

"Facebook is increasingly perceived as having a privacy problem. For Facebook, that's a problem," he added. "Their reputation is at stake. I think we'll see changes coming."

According to Gottheil, without any changes to Facebook's privacy policies, users may become increasingly open to jumping ship to another social network. He said the problem must be fixed quickly and noted that today's meeting could mark the beginning of a more acceptable policy.

"Right now, they're leaving a gigantic market opportunity for someone to come along and make a new and better Facebook with better and more transparent privacy controls," he said. "There are no clear alternatives right now, but reputations can deteriorate quickly. Like BP. Just one big leak, one big news story, and they could be in trouble."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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