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Facebook nears a half-billion members

Cecilia Kang
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Facebook is expected to announce this week that it has reached 500 million users, capping a meteoric rise that has connected the world into an online statehood of status updates, fan pages and picture exchanges.

In its six-year history, the site has become the Internet’s biggest information network and turned into a daily ritual for many users. It has connected old friends and far-flung family members, even drawing the unwilling who join for fear of being left out. It has turned many of us into daily communicators of one-line missives on the profound and mundane. It has helped make and break political campaigns and careers, testing the limits of what we care to share or keep private.

The sheer size of the Facebook universe has captured the attention of federal regulators and lawmakers who are struggling to protect consumers and their privacy. The privately held company, which still thinks of itself as a start-up, is also learning how to handle the new responsibilities that come with its massive trove of information.

“As the amount of personal information shared on social networking sites grows, and the number of third-party companies and advertising networks with access to such information grows, it is important that consumers understand how their data is being shared and what privacy rules apply,” David Vladeck, head of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, wrote in a January letter to the privacy-advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center.

To put the membership number into perspective, the population inhabiting Facebook now is close to that of the United States, Japan and Germany combined. The website is now the biggest online trust of vacation photos, electronic Rolodexes and recordings of how we felt about President Barack Obama’s election. Seventy percent of Facebook users are outside the United States, and one-quarter of all users are updating their pages from their cellphones.

The milestone will be celebrated, according to the Wall Street Journal, in a public relations campaign with users sharing stories of how Facebook has affected their lives. And the membership mark comes as Sony Pictures prepares to release “The Social Network” – a movie about Facebook’s early days – in October. A Facebook spokesman declined to comment for this post. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)

Now Facebook is grappling with the growing pains that come with a rapid expansion since it was founded six years ago in the Harvard dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive.

“A big part of the challenge that we’ve had is that we’ve grown from tens of thousands of users to hundreds of millions,” Zuckerberg, 26, said in a news conference on privacy-policy changes in May. “It’s been a big shift along the way, and it hasn’t always been smooth.”

The firm recently moved its headquarters from University Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif., to a bigger campus on Page Mill Road. But bigger challenges have emerged on the public policy front.

When Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., blasted Facebook for failing to join the Global Network Initiative to fight online censorship, the firm’s policy director Tim Sparapani said in a C-SPAN “Communicators” interview in March that Facebook doesn’t have the same resources as Google and Microsoft, which are members of the initiative. When asked about the company’s child-safety efforts, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg noted that Facebook has sought to educate its members but that, with 1,800 employees, it isn’t able to cover every base.

“They are very much like many technology companies that are about the technology first and growing quickly for an IPO and thinking about consumers and privacy as an afterthought,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, said in a recent interview.

The biggest misstep was the company’s change in privacy policy last December, which sparked complaints by privacy groups to regulators and user outrage on comment boards.

Facebook eventually backed away from some of its changes. And the firm says it is learning as it goes. It has expanded its office in Washington and recently hired former White House economic adviser Marne Levine to head its global policy group out in the capital.

“We don’t pretend that we are perfect,” Zuckerberg said in an interview in May. “We try to build new things, hear feedback and respond with changes to that feedback all the time.”