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Don’t be fooled by that nice blog post, Facebook’s latest privacy change is a big deal

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Mark Zuckerberg, famed for his relatively modest lifestyle among the tech fancy-men, just made a major real estate purchase: He paid $30 million to snag the properties surrounding his house. Why? Privacy: developers were planning on capitalizing on his proximity. It’s too bad he’s shelling out so much money to maintain a sense of security while he’s stripping away the privacy of Facebook users. 

On Thursday, Facebook published a low-key reminder in its Newsroom titled “Reminder: Finishing the Removal of an Old Search Setting.” Sounds innocuous enough, right? Just doing some updating on stuff they had in the works. The post might as well be subtitled “No big deal y’all.” 

But it is a big deal. This privacy change means that, soon, anyone will be able to look you up on Facebook unless you’ve specifically blocked them. This means users who have previously hidden their profiles and made themselves unsearchable to the general public will no longer be able to do so, unless they want to go ahead and block every Facebook user besides their existing group of friends, which would take an incredible amount of time considering there are well over a billion users. Facebook removed this option for people who weren’t already using it last year, but for those users who have chosen to keep their profiles out of the public search, this change strips their ability to keep that privacy setting. This will be a giant headache for teachers, who use this setting to have a Facebook page without worrying about students seeing them holding a beer on their trip to Florida, and any users with public personas who want to keep a personal account for friends and family. 

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Prior to this, you could set your privacy settings to allow only friends or friends of friends to look up your Timeline by name. Facebook claims that only a single-digit percentage of users took advantage of this privacy option, which is why it’s removing it. But this change will allow any user of Facebook that you haven’t specifically blocked the ability to see your name, your profile picture, your gender, and your cover photo. It will also allow users to see your networks, although there is still an opt-out option for that. 

And guess what? Even a single digit out of a billion is a lot – one percent of one billion is 10,000,000. So there are actually a staggering amount of users affected by this. 

Facebook has been moving toward public-facing profiles for a long time, and it’s part of the company’s project to turn into a search and discovery tool. Facebook has high hopes for Graph Search becoming a bonafide alternative engine, particularly when it comes to people, and users who chose to make their profiles unsearchable to the larger community were hurting the company’s efforts to make Graph Search work. 

You are the proverbial frog in a pot and Facebook is boiling your froggy privacy away by slowly turning the heat up.

Now, you’ll still be able to prevent strangers from adding you as a friend, and for individual posts, you’ll still be able to limit the audience. This doesn’t mean Facebook is making everything public. But it wants to. And it’s going to keep shifting its settings to push users into making public posts. This decision to effectively change all of Facebook into an open directory with basic information means the company is dismissing people who want to stay “unlisted” and it suggests that — if we didn’t already know this — your privacy means nothing at all to the company’s future plans. 

Facebook is still the premiere social network, and it can do this because it has positioned itself as a platform often seen as necessary to participate in the social Web. The company’s recent bid to work with media companies so that cable providers use Facebook login to allow their subscribers to access web content highlights how Facebook is now something you need to have in order to do other things easily online — Facebook is now required to comment on a number of different websites, and signing up for a variety of services is often much easier if you choose to connect through Facebook instead of manually entering your information. If you want to use Tinder, you have to use Facebook. If you want to use Instagram, well, you’re using Facebook. The network is really good at weaving itself into the fabric of the Internet, and if we all did decide to abandon ship it would muck things up for many more services than just Facebook

This privacy update is probably not going to have much of an impact, if any, on Facebook’s popularity, despite protestations from tech writers like myself. But this behavior is going to screw with the company eventually. There’s an undercurrent of resistance to how Facebook is tied-to-your-IRL-identity social media. Teens really are abandoning the network, partly because the olds joined but also because Twitter and mobile services like Snapchat make it easier to say stuff to your friends and post pictures without urging you to share it with everyone (sure, Twitter is mainly for public tweets, but lots of young people keep their accounts protected, or tweet using a handle removed from their real name). Snapchat’s researcher Nathan Jurgenson, has written about the company’s decision to fiddle with the idea of a permanent record on social media, and I think he’s really hit on something — even though there will always be ways to record stuff we put online, the fact that this rising social tool is urging users to resist that urge is remarkable. 

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: Facebook is a profit-driven company, not a freaking non-profit, and it’s going to move users in a direction that will allow for more profitability. Search is where it wants to go, and making a search engine based on the social Web requires personal information made public. That’s fine. But the company is being particularly slimy because it’s cloaking this goal in blog posts that make it seem like it’s trying to preserve privacy and help us figure it out. It does not want that. Facebook wants everything you put on it to be public. And while this change isn’t big enough to cause a serious uproar, the company will continue etching away at its privacy controls, slowly. You are the proverbial frog in a pot and Facebook is boiling your froggy privacy away by slowly turning the heat up. 

It will take more than this to get me to stop using Facebook because I am a weak aficionado of the social creep, and also I get paid to write about social media – but if I had my druthers and a different job I’d delete my profile faster than a 17-year-old clicking out of YouPorn when his dad walks in the room. 

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Kate Knibbs
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kate Knibbs is a writer from Chicago. She is very happy that her borderline-unhealthy Internet habits are rewarded with a…
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