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Facebook seeks to reassure users on data privacy Add to ...

Facebook is embracing its biggest perceived shortcoming, with a sharpened focus on educating users about the privacy settings they have available to them to help control the way their personal information is used.

The social networking company plans to share more of its user’s personal data with its partners, despite the objections of the majority of users who cast a ballot in a web poll the company hosted that concluded late Monday. But the vote was non-binding because of low turnout, leaving the company to reassure its billion users that it wouldn’t share their information recklessly among its own group of corporate friends.

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It plans to launch an “Ask The Chief Privacy Officer” feature to the site, which will allow its billion users to submit questions directly to the company’s executive in charge of all things personal. It also plans to hosts webcasts and podcasts in an effort to “educate people to a greater extent over privacy concerns,” according to Facebook Canada president Jordan Banks.

“It’s a question of education and information,” said Mr. Banks. “It’s a major area of focus for the company going forward. We’re trying to bridge the gap between the appearance and the reality when it comes to people’s privacy settings and the way they want to govern their experience on Facebook.”

The question-and-answer format closely mirrors an initiative launched by McDonald’s Canada earlier this year, which allowed customers to ask things such as “Are the fries made out of sugar” and “Why does your food look different in the advertising than what is in the store?” The questions were submitted via social media, and the answers were posted to the restaurant’s website.

The issue of Facebook privacy was recently thrust back into the forefront after the Menlo Park-based social networking site said it wanted to share user data between Facebook and the Instagram photo app (among others) that it purchased last year for close $1-billion. The company held a vote on its website to see if its users supported its plans to provide data to companies it owns or partners with – but users voted overwhelming against the proposal.

Facebook has a history of allowing its users to vote on major governance changes, but those democratic exercises are only binding if 30 per cent (or about 300 million) of the site’s users participate. The most recent vote ended Monday, with 88 per cent of those who participated telling the company they didn’t want it to share information.

However, less than 1 per cent of the site’s users took part. The company said it could abandon the voting system “in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement” if it didn’t break the 30 per cent threshold.

“We will be announcing the results and the next steps regarding the governance process shortly,” the company posted on its governance page late Monday.

While hundreds of millions of users are drawn to the site – Canada has one of the highest rates of adoption in the world with 18 million users – they are extremely touchy about how their information is used. The company hasn’t helped itself, with a series of decisions over the last eight years that have forced users to share more information than they were aware and often made it difficult to understand who was able to see what once it was posted to the site.

Most recently, there was controversy over the company’s “like” button that allows users to become fans of companies and brands. Many people didn’t understand that if you clicked the button, your name and picture would show up in endorsements on their friend’s Facebook pages.

Mr. Banks said the company wants to do a better job of showing people how to protect the information they don’t want to share, and that it will be a major focus for Facebook in the coming months.

“The most important thing to us is that you control your information and that you only engage in activities you are comfortable with,” he said. “We will make sure you are more educated going forward than you were before.”

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