Reporting from Palo Alto — Facebook on Wednesday unveiled tools that give users freer access to the data they've sent the website and make it easier for them to interact with smaller circles of friends, features that analysts say could increase sharing and time spent on what is already the world's largest social networking service.
Facebook will also now allow its more than 500 million users to more closely monitor and control what personal data third-party applications access via a dashboard. The move is likely to appease some concerns of lawmakers and privacy watchdogs who have complained that Facebook does not adequately protect the privacy of its users.
The three new features, the result of two months of intense work at the company, started rolling out to users Wednesday. Last week, Facebook launched new photo features including high-definition images and better tagging.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the changes at a news conference at his company's Palo Alto headquarters, his first public appearance since last Friday's debut of "The Social Network." Zuckerberg declined to discuss the movie that explores the controversial founding of the 6-year-old company. He had previously called the movie "fiction."
"It's a core part of our belief that people own and have control of all the information they upload," Zuckerberg said.
Rather than blasting information to all of their friends, Facebook users can now put their friends in different groups and send messages and chat with people in those groups.
"What we've created here out of the box blows everything else away," Zuckerberg said. "We think that's what people are going to want to use."
Facebook already offered a feature that let users create custom friend lists, but only 5% of users took the time to do that, Zuckerberg said. Users can create groups to share baby pictures with family members, reunion information with high school pals or exercise tips with fellow joggers, for example.
"People are undoubtedly going to take to this," Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray said. "Once people get invited to a group and understand how it is used there is going to be a natural gravitation toward using it."
That gravitational pull could yank users away from other sites that offer popular groups services such as Yahoo and Google.
Facebook users will also be able to download all the information they have uploaded to the site, answering a key criticism that Facebook is a "closed" site that does not allow users to export their information.
Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search and user experience, addressed that concern last week at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. The "download your information" feature will give users a ".zip" file with all the photos, videos, status updates, friends lists and other information they put on the site.
Despite strides, Facebook continues to be dogged by privacy concerns. In August, Facebook rolled out a new feature called Places that lets users share their locations, prompting complaints from some privacy watchdogs. Facebook responded by requiring users to opt in to the service.
Facebook is banking on its rising popularity to generate advertising sales, which makes up the bulk of its income. Revenue is expected to hit at least $1.4 billion in 2010, up from $700 million to $800 million last year. The privately held company is valued at nearly $34 billion.
Erica Newland, in a blog post for the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the new features "demonstrate that Facebook has listened to past criticisms about its practices and is ready to play a leadership role when it comes to user privacy."
Privacy watchdog Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, disagreed, saying Facebook hadn't gone far enough in giving consumers access to the data it collects on them and what it does with that data.
"Facebook is still operating as a largely stealth data collection platform, allowing advertisers to target users through nontransparent means," Chester said. "Facebook is a huge privacy problem."