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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Confronted with mounting privacy protests, Facebook.com has scaled back a Web monitoring feature that notifies one's friends when the Facebook user visits affiliated Web sites, the company said on Thursday.
In a statement, the Palo Alto, California-based company said it was making a several changes to a recently introduced feature called "Facebook Beacon" in the wake of a petition signed by 50,000 Facebook users to scale back the feature.
The changes announced by Facebook promise to give users some improved controls over what information about a user's Web activity is broadcast to friends and also improves notifications to users before releasing user data to other Facebook users.
The protest was started by online activist group MoveOn.org, who set up a petition on its Web site here calling on Facebook to give users a simple way to opt out of Beacon.
There have been several other protests, including a petition group in the Facebook site itself called "Facebook, stop invading my privacy."
Facebook is a nearly 4-year-old site that has exploded in popularity since May, when it opened up to let independent software develops build their own applications on the site. It has grown by nearly fivefold to 55 million users in a year.
Recently, the company introduced Beacon as a way to keep one's network of friends on Facebook informed about one's own Web surfing habits on other Web sites. Critics argued this transformed Facebook from a members-only site known for privacy protections into a diary of one's wider Web activities.
The MoveOn.org petition begun on November 20 attracted 5,000 backers that day, 25,000 by Monday and 50,000 on Thursday.
The petition relayed the anecdote of a "Matt in New York" who, it said, already knew what his girlfriend had purchased him for Christmas because the Facebook Beacon feature had broadcast where his girlfriend had gone shopping online.
"Why?" the petition asked. "Because a new Facebook feature automatically shares books, movies, or gifts you buy online with everyone you know on Facebook."
The protest was far from a rejection of Facebook.
The site read: "A lot of us love Facebook -- it's helping to revolutionize the way we connect with each other. But they (the company) need to take privacy seriously," the petition pleaded.
It was the second major privacy protest by Facebook members that has led the site to back off new features. In September 2006, a university student-led protest attracted more than 700,000 signatories to a petition to improve privacy features inside the Facebook site itself. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)