This means that when you click on a user’s contact information in hopes of sending the person a private email, you no longer see the Gmail, AOL, Yahoo or other email address that the person intended for you to see. Instead, you see an email address that was created and controlled by the social networking service.
Users can go into their settings and undo Facebook’s change — if they know about it. But many people don’t have any idea (yet) that the company made the revision; Facebook certainly didn’t do anything to publicize it.
In fact, the only reason that the shift came to attention is because a sharp-eyed blogger realized over the weekend what had happened and alerted followers to the move. “Facebook silently inserted themselves into the path of formerly-direct unencrypted communications from people who want to email me,” he wrote. “What on earth do they think they are playing at?”
That post was picked up today by some tech journalists, who spread news of Facebook’s latest maneuver. Facebook’s email grab clearly irritated those users who learned of it — and with good reason. If nothing else, people who don’t want their messages going to Facebook inboxes must take time out of their day to restore their old settings.
The move also raises questions about whether the company is violating the terms of its consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. That order requires Facebook to obtain users’ explicit opt-in consent before overriding their privacy preferences.
Privacy advocates and Facebook can probably make arguments both ways on that point. On one hand, Facebook isn’t revealing any additional information about people; in some ways, the company is giving them more privacy by hiding their outside email addresses. On the other hand, Facebook arguably is overriding users’ expressed privacy preferences by hiding the very email addresses users wanted to share.
Regardless, the email switch isn’t the first time Facebook has changed its service without adequate notice to users. There was the 2007 Beacon program, which spread news about people’s ecommerce activity with their friends; the company is still in litigation over that fiasco. Two years later, the company had another privacy debacle when it revised users’ default settings so that information that had previously been private was now public. That change resulted in the company’s settlement with the FTC.
Hopefully Facebook will retreat from this latest half-baked idea as soon as possible.