How Facebook's "public search listing" could empower users

Facebook is adding "public search listings" whereby user profiles will be indexable by Google et al. This, once again, raises the issue of privacy on the social web. In this post, I argue that Facebook profiles that show up on Google results could actually benefit users who are concerned about their represented online.
Written by Steve O'Hear, Contributor

With news that Facebook is adding a public-facing (i.e. no need to log-in) "people search" function, that -- in approximately one month's time -- will be "spidered" by public search engines, including Google, it's clear that the so-called social utility is one step closer to reaching its ambition to become an operating system for the social web.

The new "public listing search" feature enables anyone to search by name for a person on Facebook, which is sure to raise privacy concerns and test the social network's ability to balance "privacy" as a unique selling point, with the need to find ever greater ways of driving traffic to the site and exploit all of the personal data that its persuaded users to volunteer.

To that end, the "public search listing" comes with a number of additional privacy controls:

  • The "public search listing" of a profile shows the profile picture thumbnail and links to interact with a user on Facebook.
  • People will always have to log in or register to poke, message or add someone as a friend.
  • A user can also restrict what information shows in their public listing by going to the search privacy page. For instance, if a user does not want their profile picture to be shown, they can uncheck that box under “What people can do with my search results”.

Additionally, users can choose to opt out of having their "public search listing" be indexable by external search engines -- they'll have around a month to do so.

In relation to Facebook's latest move, Om Malik raises two interesting points. Where does this leave dedicated people search engines, such as the heavily funded Spock? and, how does this contribute to the growing problem of "digital litter" in which people are leaving crumbs of personal information all over the web, in a way that makes it very difficult to hoover up at a later date, if they so desire.

On the first issue, if Facebook continues to grow and eat into the social functionality of other web services, then people search could end up, largely, meaning Facebook profile search. Were that to happen then Spock et al. could be left in the dust. On the other hand, by making public profiles on Facebook indexable, might it actually help competing people search engines as they can now legitimately spider Facebooks data?

The issue of "digital litter" is a far bigger one than Facebook alone. And users may worry about their privacy even more, now that Facebook is publicly searchable. However, perhaps more worryingly is the way that users have been lulled into a false sense of security with regards to how these social networks (Facebook is not alone) invite users to volunteer and share so much information, much of which then ends up in Google's index, where there exists virtually no accountability or control.

Within this context, does Facebook's "public search listing" make the situation worse? I'm going to say no. Let me explain why.

Facebook results will inevitably end up pretty high in Google's 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. 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. In other words, I now at least have a chance to influence how I'm represented on Google and online in general.

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