Facebook on Sept. 5 made its member listings searchable by outside users and public search engines, and in a seemingly innocuous move to help its 40 million users find each other, threatened its hard-won reputation for strict privacy practices.
The adjustment means a query of a Facebook members name on search engines such as Google, Yahoo or MSN will return a users name and thumbnail picture, and thus the end of the walled garden image often touted by the site.
Conscious of the fact that the new approach may raise privacy concerns, Facebook made it clear that users will only appear in searches outside Facebook when search settings are set to "Everyone" and will allow users approximately one month to set their privacy options before Facebook allows search engines to index public search listings.
But the practice attracted the attention of several high-tech bloggers, including Danny Sullivan, John Battelle and Om Malik, who, in his blog, GigaOm, called the move a switch from social networking to a "quasi-White Pages of the Web."
"Think broadly however, this is yet another small step in the overall erosion of personal privacy, thanks to the ever-growing popularity of the social networks," Malik wrote. "I dont like the direction where all this is headed. We are slowly leaving digital litter all over the Web, and some day it is going to cause problems."
It would also drive Web traffic to the site and encourage non-members to join the Facebook party, he said.
While bloggers everywhere echoed this concern, Facebook isnt caving to the public apprehension.
"The public search listing contains less information than someone could find right after signing up anyway, so were not exposing any new information, and you have complete control over your public search listing," said Facebook engineer Philip Fung in a blog post.
Are the privacy concerns much ado about nothing?
Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li acknowledged that the people in Facebook may be concerned because theyre not sure how this might affect them.
"In some ways, I do agree that this is the end of the privacy part of Facebook, in other words, of it being a walled garden," Li told eWEEK. "Its still maintaining its walled garden, but its really opening itself up, which is what everyone wanted in the first place, so its ironic."
But Li, who has both a private and public account on Facebook, thinks the privacy concerns might be a bit overblown at this stage, noting that the control over privacy is up to the user.
"The default is that its completely open and public," Li said. "You can argue whether it should be the other way around—that the default should be private— but the fact of the matter is that if youre on a social networking site youre there to meet other people. What were you doing on there in the first place?"
Read more here about Google and its stale cookies.
ZDNet blogger Steve OHear spelled out a couple of pros and cons to the public search listing practice in his blog poston the subject.
OHear suggested users have been lulled into a false sense of security with regards to how these social networks "invite users to volunteer and share so much information, much of which then ends up in Googles index, where there exists virtually no accountability or control."
Despite this, OHear is all for the public search listing on Facebook.
"Facebook results will inevitably end up pretty high in Googles index, so a search for my name through Google— were I to opt in—would probably bring up my Facebook profile before many of my other social Web presences, let alone what others have written about me," OHear reasoned.
"Presuming this works out to be the case, the end result is that I now have more control over what digital litter you see first, because I can edit my profile any time I like, and the search engine will re-index the results," he added.
Facebooks move and subsequent outcry are a byproduct of the evolution of the social networking site business model. Facebook and rivals MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and others of its ilk, are all looking to expand and improve their business models.
Facebook, which actually leaked some of its own source code last month, is hardly the only site going through such growing pains.
Recently, there were some spirited complaints about social networking site Quechup.
Read more here about the Quechup mess.
Several users blogged that they had signed up for the service only to find that the Quechup service imported the address contacts from their inboxes and spammed users.
Quechup is now in the process of revamping its site to clarify the opt-in terms but analysts said the ill will triggered by the e-mail importing practice was likely quite damaging for the social networking service, which is newer and not as popular as MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn.
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