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Facebook Aims to Simplify Privacy Settings

Not two weeks after its chief privacy officer appeared before a pair of House subcommittees to defend Facebook's commitment to privacy, the world's largest social network today unveiled plans to simplify and strengthen the mechanisms it gives people to control their information online.

"We're committed to giving people even greater control over the information they share and the audiences with whom they share it," Facebook's Chris Kelly wrote in a blog post.

Facebook is beginning limited trials today to guide people through its new, simplified privacy controls. It plans to collect feedback to tweak the new features and broaden the trials in the coming weeks.

The hearing where Kelly testified was no idle affair. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va), the chairman of one of the subcommittees that convened the proceeding, is getting closer to introducing privacy legislation that could have a major impact on how online firms collect and use information.

In an effort to stave off heavy-handed government restrictions, companies like Facebook, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) (each represented at the hearing) aim to demonstrate that they are responsible corporate citizens who can be trusted to safeguard their users' sensitive information in a self-regulatory regime.

Could specific provisions choke growth?

Many Web companies are accepting of a broad privacy bill that would set baseline regulations for handling information online and off, but warn that legislation with specific provisions about online practices could choke off the growth of a vibrant and fast-evolving industry.

For Facebook, the thrust of its privacy policy to date has been that it's more than 200 million users might have vastly different views on how much information they want to share about themselves, so they need very specific privacy controls. For the online exhibitionists who couldn't give a wit who sees what about them, Facebook offers an "everyone" setting, which blasts out every update to every member of a person's network.

For folks at the other end of the spectrum, Facebook recently launched its Publisher Privacy Control, a feature that offers a granular level of control over who gets to see what post.

Facebook, no stranger to privacy controversies, has learned the hard way to pay more than lip service to the issue. But adding a separate privacy control with each iteration of a new product or feature has led to a tangled clutch of privacy settings that many users found difficult to navigate, a complexity that today's announcement seeks to correct.

"When we add new features to Facebook, we usually include a corresponding privacy setting," Kelly said. "While this has helped give some people more individualized controls over particular features, the compounding effect of more and more settings has made controlling privacy on Facebook too complicated."

When the new trials launch, users will be able to control all of their privacy settings from a single page, a sort of all-encompassing privacy dashboard.

Facebook also said it would remove settings that overlap, and merge controls that govern similar features to eliminate confusion.

"In the process, we will be asking you to revisit and reaffirm the way you present yourself on Facebook," Kelly said.

The device for that is what Facebook is calling the Transition Tool, which will query users about how they would like to set their privacy controls going forward, but will also remember and apply people's previous settings.