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Facebook is on track to reach 500 million users by June, despite a backlash over a series of recent anti-privacy changes that mean more and more users' information is exposed to all and sundry.

The unofficial but generally reliable All Facebook blog reports that the social network is planning a significant celebration once the milestone is reached to coincide with the third anniversary of the Facebook Platform launch at the end of next month.

The blog adds that Facebook is on track to reach 600 million users and $1bn in revenue by the end of 2010. The social networking site had less than a third that number of users - around 15 million - just 12 months ago.

The site has been the focus of sustained criticism over how it handles customer data over recent weeks. European data protection officials complained over a recent privacy rollback that left previously shielded information widely accessible. Meanwhile a shitstorm is blowing up over Facebook's plans to share user information automatically with "pre-approved" websites.

Last week we reported how "delete Facebook account" had become the ninth most prominent search term on Google, presumably fuelled by disquiet over a run of privacy issues with the social networking website. Organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and New York Times have published studies illustrating the byzantine complexity of Facebook privacy controls, and the steady erosion of safeguards over the last five years.

High-profile users, including developers at Google, security experts and journalists, have quit Facebook and posted instructions on how others can do the same. Nascent privacy-conscious social network Diaspora has been earning slews of favourable ink.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg scoffed at users for trusting him with their data in the early days of developing the site at Harvard, according to an ageing instant message conversation that leaked out a few days ago. Facebook convened a company-wide crisis meeting last Friday.

Yet none of this seems to have affected Facebook growth. What seems to be happening is that the influx of new users has far exceeded the exit of early adopter and security-conscious types. Others have stayed around because even though they dislike Facebook's privacy policies, the site remains useful to them.

The constant stream of negative headlines about Facebook seems to have made little difference to all this and may actually have encouraged some to join the site just to see what all the fuss was about. If that's the case, then the growth of Facebook comes as something of a 21st century vindication of Brendan Behan's maxim that the only bad publicity is an obituary. ®

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