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Facebook to users: Help us with privacy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a May 26, 2010 photo. Getty Images

Facebook announced this week that it's seeking user comment on a proposed redesign of its privacy policy that's meant to make the policy easier to understand while bringing the world of legalese-smothered documents into the widget-filled realm of the 21st century.

In a post to Facebook's site governance section, the company's privacy team offers a look at its "first attempt" to re-organize, rewrite, and add interactivity to the current policy, which is essentially your standard mass of small black text.

Among other potentially interesting re-imaginings, the proposed redesign features an interactive tool intended to demonstrate how profile data is put to use in serving advertisements (click "Personalized ads" and scroll down to "Try this tool"). The tool puts Facebook members into the shoes of someone creating and targeting an ad. It's not clear if users would deem it an educational aid or a nuisance in practice, but that seems to be part of why the potential redesign is being put to public scrutiny in this way.

The privacy team says the rough redesign is "outside of even our regular process of notice and comment," and it continues:

"Because we're tackling a challenge that matters to so many people--and doing it in a way that is so different from what we've done before--we're giving you a look even earlier in the process. If people like what we have, we'll put it through our regular notice and comment process at a later date."

The team also makes it clear that the effort is meant to involve the reorganization and presentation of the privacy policy, not any significant changes to its actual content. "We've tried not to change the substance of the policy but, in our effort to simplify, we have added some new things that were elsewhere on the site (like our help center) and have made some other concepts clearer," it says.

Facebook, of course, has been battered by high-profile complaints from privacy advocates, including a U.S. senator or two. Last year, the company, which hosts the private data of many millions of members around the globe, instituted major changes to user privacy controls in response to such concerns.

Still, the company has given some indication that it could continue its "shoot first, ask questions later" approach to privacy-related site changes. It launched a tweak this past January that potentially made users' addresses and phone numbers available to app developers. That change was hastily reconsidered after it touched off yet another kerfuffle about the company's practices.

In its post about the redesign, the privacy team speaks proudly of Facebook's "unconventional, innovative spirit." True, the aforementioned tool for explaining ads could conceivably break new ground in the staid world of "reading the fine print." (Heck, if you're gonna go interactive, why not get Zynga involved--"MarketingVille" anyone?) But the truly visionary move here might just turn out to be the outreach effort itself. Making an extra effort to solicit comment before instituting a privacy-related change? For Facebook, that could be the real innovation.

This story originally appeared on CNET
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