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The hidden story behind Facebook’s privacy changes – and why your data has suddenly become a lot more valuable

By Simon Davies

Desperate for a positive news story about Facebook, the world’s media is in hyperdrive over changes to the site’s new privacy settings. I mean, gosh, they are now so easy to use.

What many media outlets have overlooked is that the overall privacy of all Facebook users has now been pushed into an abyss

“Facebook caves in to privacy pressures” declared the stately Financial Times. “Facebook’s privacy evolution crawls another step out of the ooze” croons ReadWriteSocial

Hang on… what has this got to do with the reality of yesterday’s events? What many media outlets have overlooked is that the overall privacy of all Facebook users has now been pushed into an abyss. Crucially, they are missing the big picture – one of the biggest stories in recent Internet history. But before coming to that I should first deal with the smaller issues.

There’s no doubt that the new privacy settings are an improvement. The problem is that users have less privacy to set than they had yesterday. It is now impossible to hide yourself from user searches. The company is also fusing images with Instagram, meaning that users will be exposed to searches beyond the social network itself.

Having said that, you can now more easily block users, though you can’t prospectively block users from searching you. Of course if they ever found you – and if you could find out that they had found you – then you can block them from finding you again… except by then they’ll already know how to locate you.

To create a fanfare about the simplification of already burdensome privacy controls is like praising Delta Airways for improving its customer service

Anyway, saying the privacy settings are an improvement is giving too much credit to a company that was advised five years ago to build settings that didn’t require a doctorate in engineering to use. After all, the betting is that in 2008 Mark Zuckerberg – himself no fan of privacy – became exasperated with the constant criticism over privacy, slammed his fist on the desk and screamed “if they want privacy controls we’ll give them so many that the bastards drown in them”. Or words to that effect. Go on Facebook.. tell me that didn’t happen.

To create a fanfare about the simplification of already burdensome privacy controls is like praising Delta Airways for improving its customer service: it shouldn’t have been that abysmal in the first place.

There has been some celebration that, when posting an item to Facebook, users will be reminded that even if they hide something from their timeline, for instance, that item could still show up on other places around Facebook. Some observers say this is a helpful reminder because the leakage currently isn’t always clear: Predictably perhaps, I’d say that’s like putting a health and safety warning in an execution chamber.

Of course the writing was already on the wall – particularly the search expansion. Earlier this year Mark Zuckerberg told the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference about the company’s potential moves into search. Now this is the big picture.

“if” Facebook is planing on moving into the mainstream of search then the last thing it wants is to engage in a messy voting exercise with users.

“Search is interesting. We do on the order of 1 billion queries a day and we’re basically not even trying,” Zuckerberg said. “Today with search the vast majority of it is people trying to find people.”

Please take note of Zuckerberg’s language: “Today with search the vast majority of it is people trying to find people.” Am I alone in extrapolating that to “Today with search the vast majority of it is people trying to find people, but tomorrow it could be searches for everything.”

That’s no great stretch of the imagination. Zuckerberg has observed that Facebook is already “pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have”, adding “At some point we’ll do it. We have a team working on it” .

So, let’s do some number crunching here. Google handles around 4.7 billion searches a day  and reaps around ten billion dollars profit a year. Facebook says it handles a billion searches without even trying. That means some business strategists probably figure Facebook can double that number. See where the maths is heading?

It doesn’t require an insider’s wisdom to know that Facebook never intended to set the voting threshold realistically enough to be threatened by a vote

Of course – and I speak only hypothetically – “if” Facebook is planing on moving into the mainstream of search then the last thing it wants is to engage in a messy voting exercise with users. That’s just embarrassing. The vote to reduce privacy always runs at least nine to one in favour of privacy. The most recent vote went that way too.

It doesn’t require an insider’s wisdom to know that Facebook never intended to set the voting threshold realistically enough to be threatened by a vote, but the existence of the figures was a lightning rod for negative coverage.

Think of it like a government that knows it will be outvoted in a public consultation, so it changes the process to an “outreach” and removes any requirement to publish responses. Or an agency which knows it will lose in a public opinion poll and so shifts to a “focus group” model. And so on.

I know I argued in a previous blog that the voting process was a sham and should be ended, but in light of what’s just happened I’ve changed my mind.

Now “if” Facebook was to be moving search into the core of its business model – and remember I’m being hypothetical here – the second requirement would be to give users the feeling of control. That means settings that are simple, cool and icon-based. As long as you don’t actually let users opt out of search you can give them just about everything else.

Google gets to know you intimately because of your searches. Facebook however already knows you intimately before you even start searching.

What’s the difference in terms of search potential between Google and Facebook? Answer: Google gets to know you intimately because of your searches. Facebook however already knows you intimately before you even start searching.  It has a natural advantage in the advertising market. Right now Facebook sells to advertisers on the basis that it can categorise you based on your profile content. Imagine how that targeting precision would shift if the company could also marry content profiling with conventional search profiling.

Some media organisations are already on the case. A Los Angeles Times article earlier this year headlined “Facebook adds search feature; the 1st step in taking on Google?” postulated that Facebook was positioning itself to take on the search market by slowly introducing features that acclimatised users to the idea.

Of course all this is – as I say – hypothetical. The hypothesis would have credibility only if Facebook was to partner with an existing search company. Could this happen? Well, the Sunday Telegraph recently revealed that Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo!, has held discussions with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, about how the two companies can work more closely together.

God help our privacy if Facebook teams up with Yahoo! This is the company that chose to ignore the Do Not Track feature that Microsoft had enabled by default on Internet Explorer. Could it be that Yahoo’s decision to deny users the right to privacy, and Facebook’s simultaneous decision to deny users the opt-out of search are in some way connected?

You decide. But I’ve already placed my bets on what used to be a wild conspiracy theory.