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User protests have forced social network site Facebook to radically re-design its controversial News Feed feature, which critics argue is a Godsend for stalkers.

As originally launched earlier this week, News Feed appears automatically on every user's home page, updating members about recent Facebook activities by that person's friends. For example, Facebook would automatically notify users whenever a photo is posted by friends or they split up with their boyfriend or girlfriend. The feature is designed to make it easier for friends to keep up to date with each other. But many users are unhappy that the feature was pushed upon them. At the heart of the controversy was the idea that casual acquaintances, maintained through the Facebook network, would find out about changes to user's circumstances indiscriminately.

Facebook has expanded beyond its college student base to rack up 9.5m members, mainly in the US, leaving it second behind only MySpace in the social network site market. More than 500,000 of these users signed an online petition calling on Facebook to scrap News Feed. Faceback has responded to this welter of criticism by giving users far more control over the information they share, something it now admits it ought to have done in the first place.

Mea culpa

"We really messed this one up. When we launched News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world. Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them," site founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a message responding to the protests.

Zuckerberg admits that the new features undermined Facebook's goal of creating an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, under privacy settings designed to help people choose who they wanted to share information with.

"Somehow we missed this point with [News] Feed and we didn’t build in the proper privacy controls right away. This was a big mistake on our part, and I’m sorry for it," he writes.

Zuckerberg has pledged to build better privacy control into News Feed as a concession to critics. A new privacy page will allow users to choose which types of stories go into their friends' News Feeds as well as the type of actions Facebook will never let any other person know about.

Whether these actions go far enough to stem the tide of criticism against Facebook isn't immediately clear. Critics were calling for News Feed to be scrapped entirely and may well push Facebook further in that direction before the criticism dies down. ®

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