Facebook Killing ‘Unsearch’ Is No Big Thing, but the Lack of a Blanket Opt-Out Is

Facebook deep-sixes a misleading privacy feature, but fails to backfill with a better one.

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Last night, Facebook put the final wheels in motion for a plan it’s been unfurling since last year — a plan to remove a remaining few’s ability to make themselves unsearchable on Facebook.

That sounds insidious, and on some level it is insidious. Facebook serves many masters, and some of the choices it makes on our behalf don’t align with our interests, which may from time to time include darkening our Facebook accounts without permanently deleting them.

Before we delve into that, let’s review what’s happening: Last December, Facebook removed a privacy setting called “Who can look up your Timeline by name?” for people who weren’t using it. That was most of us, said Facebook. For the “small percentage” who did use it, Facebook left their accounts untouched — until yesterday, when the company announced plans to sunset the feature, noting users would “see reminders about it being removed in the coming weeks.”

By blocking search access to your Timeline, you were extricating yourself from Facebook’s de facto search engine. If someone typed your name into Facebook’s search box, you wouldn’t appear in the results. It was a way to isolate yourself from drive-by searches, preventing non-friends from noticing your presence on Facebook. It was, in so many words, a little like opting out of the phone book.

But Facebook is no phone book, and the feature was never a blanket profile discovery block. People could still find you indirectly, and were even likely to if they happened to be friends of friends, say they poked through a mutual friend’s friend list or noticed you tagged in a photo.

And with Graph Search indexing your profile and posts and whatever you’re partial to, that stuff lives outside your profile in Graph Search’s vast, cross-relational data warehouse. If, for instance, you ever mentioned vacationing in Kauai or visiting Waimea Canyon, someone might find you based on a Graph Search for “People who visited Kauai, Hawaii” or “Photos of people who visited Waimea Canyon Lookout.”

Those are some of the reasons users in the know considered the feature broken. Facebook offers a few more here:

The setting also made Facebook’s search feature feel broken at times. For example, people told us that they found it confusing when they tried looking for someone who they knew personally and couldn’t find them in search results, or when two people were in a Facebook Group and then couldn’t find each other through search.

Fair enough, but what some people complain is confusing, the person who’s opted not to be searchable probably calls “a feature that works.” And if two people in a Facebook Group can’t find each other through search, why can’t they link up through the Facebook Group? Isn’t the point of making yourself unsearchable, you know, to make yourself unsearchable?

But yes, as noted, Facebook’s unsearch option as implemented was disingenuous, and people who thought it amounted to a one-click opt-out simply misunderstood it. There is no one-click unsearch option in Facebook, unless we’re counting “Deactivate your account,” though even there, as Facebook says, “Some information may still be visible to others, such as your name in [a friend’s] friends list and messages you sent.” By removing unsearch, Facebook’s doing that remaining “small percentage” a favor by disabusing them of any sense they might have had that extricating themselves from Facebook search was in fact extricating them from Facebook search.

What happens now? We’re left with no net at all (however threadbare, inelastic and the opposite of impervious the net was). And that brings us to the real privacy problem: that Facebook has no blanket opt-out setting.

Today, if you want to prevent people from accessing your information, you can, but on a person by person basis. If you’re being stalked or harassed, you can blacklist the perpetrator, but on a case-by-case basis. That works when you know who the perpetrator is, but probably accounts for mostly dim-bulb stalkers or bullies unacquainted with the concept of anonymity. The brighter, more determined bulbs just circle back to snoop on or bother people vis-a-vis alternate accounts. By not giving users a blanket unsearch option (that is, letting us remove ourselves from all forms of search, even temporarily), Facebook’s making it easier than ever for stalkers, bullies and passive-aggressive jerks to keep doing what they do.

What’s more, Facebook makes a crucial error when it implicitly attempts to justify removing a feature like this by correlating use with necessity. As Carl Sagan once said, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Just because people weren’t using a setting doesn’t mean they didn’t want it there as a safeguard. Just because you’re not putting your home security system in lockdown mode every night doesn’t mean you don’t want the option to. (And no, deleting your account — giving up everything, your unique Facebook name, all your content, your Facebook email, the entire shebang — shouldn’t be your only recourse; you shouldn’t have to burn down the house to fend off the bad guys.)

So why won’t we get the one-stop opt-out we deserve? Facebook is essentially the largest voluntary profiling service on the planet. I have no doubt it wants to be the de facto informational index for all humanity. And while it charges casual users nothing, it’s not some pro bono charity gig.

As they say, when you’re not paying for a product, you are the product. What we type and search for and allow to be shared (or wind up forced to) on Facebook comprises Facebook’s informatics service catalog to companies who want our attention. To most people, the social networking site is just a simple freebie way to interlink with family and friends or celebrate shared interests; to Facebook, its shareholders and its clientele, it’s a vast behavior-gleaning and marketing enterprise.

The option to disengage from that aspect of the engine? To isolate all of your information without deleting your account? To secure your persona from prying eyes? More casualties of the identity commodification wars.