By Alexei Oreskovic
PALO ALTO, California (Reuters) - Facebook has unveiled tools to give users more control over personal information and let them set up cliques of friends, as the world's No.1 social network tries to protect its lead from a growing challenge by Google Inc.
The new "Groups" feature makes it easier for its half-billion users to interact with select circles of friends, instead of having photos and personal messages openly viewable to family, college buddies and colleagues alike.
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said the change -- which analysts say is intended partly to mirror the various circles that people navigate in actual life -- should make people even more comfortable publishing personal information on the service.
"If we can do this, then we can unlock a huge amount of sharing that people want to do, but today they just can't do, because either it's too annoying, or there just aren't the right privacy settings to be able to do this at large scale," Zuckerberg told reporters at his Palo Alto, California headquarters.
Facebook, which has come under fire for inadequate privacy controls, will provide users with a special file containing all the personal data they have uploaded to the service -- upon request -- as well as a way to monitor which third-party applications have access to their data.
Its new groups feature comes a few months after a Google staffer published a white-paper identifying the inability of social networks such as Facebook to distinguish between the multiple social groups that an individual belongs to in real life.
"It's a bit of a preemptive strike against Google," said Ray Valdes, an analyst at industry research firm Gartner.
"It's addressing a real problem that had been a shortcoming in the Facebook service," said Valdes. "But it also has the effect of covering (Facebook's) flank."
THE RIGHT TOUCH
Google itself, which controls two-thirds of the world's Internet search market, has struggled to find the right touch when it comes to social networking. But the company has acquired several companies with social networking technology, including Slide.
Last month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said the company would begin introducing "layers" of social networking features into Google products this Fall.
With groups, Facebook users will be able to pool their friends in different groups or circles and send messages to, or hold mass-chats online with, those groups.
That expands a feature already available on the website, which lets users create custom friend lists. But Zuckerberg said a mere 5 percent of Facebook's users have availed themselves of that tool.
In contrast, Zuckerberg said he expected up to 80 percent of Facebook's users to eventually belong to customized groups on the site.
(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; editing by Steve Orlofsky and Andre Grenon)