Facebook has quietly deleted a long-standing user privacy setting, removing one of the last obstacles to prevent complete strangers from finding each other on the pre-eminent social network.
Until now, Facebook users have been able to limit people who search for them to "Friends" or "Friends of Friends." (The default setting is "Everyone.") In other words, John Smith was able to make sure that only people who had some degree of connection to him could search for his presence on Facebook.
Now, "Everyone" — more than a billion Facebook users — will be able to search for "Everyone" else, no questions asked.
Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Michael Richter downplayed the change in a company blog posting yesterday (Oct. 10) entitled "Finishing the Removal of an Old Search Setting." He characterized the privacy option as a vestige of a more primitive time, and one that was standing in the way of progress.
"The setting was created when Facebook was a simple directory of profiles and it was very limited," Richter said, adding that it "made Facebook's search feature feel broken at times."
"People told us that they found it confusing when they tried looking for someone who they knew personally and couldn't find them in search results," he wrote, "or when two people were in a Facebook Group and then couldn't find each other through search."
In fact, Richter implied, the Facebook users who do limit searches to friends of friends — such as this writer — are lonely diehards about to get a wake-up call from the future.
"The search setting was removed last year for people who weren't using it," he wrote. "For the small percentage of people still using the setting, they will see reminders about it being removed in the coming weeks."
But won't the removal of this feature also remove some control over what total strangers see about individual users on Facebook?
No problem, said Richter, adding that Facebook's new settings give you much more control.
"The best way to control what people can find about you is to choose the audience of the individual things you share," he wrote, including a screen grab of the sharing drop-down menu attached to each posting dialogue box.
He added that users can also retroactively limit the sharing of past posts by visiting "Privacy Settings and Tools," and limit the visibility of those posts and status updates to friends or friends of friends.
Richter didn't mention the "Blocking" feature in Settings, which will still let users prevent other users from searching for them, or indeed from seeing them at all.
For example, someone who has a stalker can block that person using that person's name or email address.
Of course, that assumes the targeted user already knows he or she has a stalker. Women who are victims of Webcam hackers and "sextortionists" aren't always aware they're being watched.
Because Facebook is essentially changing its search feature from "opt-in" (to let the entire world see a user) to "opt-out" (to block certain individuals), the targeted user will just have to find out the hard way.
Online security experts, already predisposed against what they see as Facebook's slow, deliberate erosion of its users' privacy, didn't waste time commenting on the change.
"No. Wrong," wrote independent tech journalist Rob Pegoraro on Sulia.com in response to Richter's reassurances. "Things like stalking exist. It's stereotypical Silicon Valley arrogance to think that one fixed visibility level fits 1.15 billion monthly active users."
The Register's Jack Clark pointed out that "Facebook is a for-profit ad-backed company whose revenue growth depends on its users sharing as much data as possible with one another" and that "the company's main motivation is to eradicate user privacy over time."
Independent security expert Graham Cluley noted that no matter how polite Facebook is, users don't have a choice about accepting the change.
"There isn't an 'Actually, I am quite happy with things as they are. Please leave my privacy alone' option," Cluley wrote on his blog — but added that there's still something each user can do.
"Ultimately, as always with Facebook, you have to make a decision," he wrote. "Mark Zuckerberg makes the rules, you are not a paying customer, and you have no say. If you don't like the way Facebook is going, maybe you should leave the site and permanently delete your account."