December 22, 2012 | By Adi Kamdar

Experimenting with Your Privacy, Facebook Begins Selling Access to Your Inbox

Facebook recently started rolling out a new "experiment" that would allow any individual to pay a small fee to send a message to your inbox. Your Facebook messages page has two folders: "Inbox" and "Other." Currently, most friend and group messages go to the inbox, while messages from everyone else automatically go to the Other folder. Facebook is testing a feature that would make this no longer true: now anybody can pay ($1 is the latest rumor) to make sure her message goes straight to your inbox.

Even before this change, one could not have a private profile—all profiles are now searchable. But this new experiment takes it even further, where a stranger can not only find your profile, but can also ensure that a message reaches you.

Control is the key issue here. As we mentioned before in our analysis of Instagram's proposed Terms of Service change, we strongly believe that social networks should follow three key principles: informed decision making, control, and the right to leave.

As of now, you have very little control over who ends up in your inbox. You have the same little control over who ends up in your Gmail inbox, except that you can control who you give your email address to. The two filtering options Facebook allows—basic and strict—provide a soft distinction. Basic states you'll see "mostly messages from friends and people you may know (ex: friends of friends) in your inbox"; with strict filtering, "You'll see mostly messages from friends in your inbox." Choosing between these two options (that prominently feature the word "mostly") doesn't allow for users to make the most informed of decisions. And regardless of which filtering option you choose, Facebook goes on to mention on their help page, "Someone you're not connected to on Facebook may pay to ensure their message is routed to your inbox instead of your Other folder."

Facebook has safeguards to help protect people from unwanted messages—blocking messages and reporting as spam—but these are only available after the fact. Unfortunately, they appear only after you have clicked to open a message, thus marking it as read and—critically—telling the sender that message was "Seen at 1:15 PM." Coupled with this new experiment, this means that anyone with a dollar to spend can not only send you a message, but also know when you saw it. Facebook should allow people to block and report messages without signaling when the message was read, or—better yet—allow people to opt out of the program entirely.

A Rock and a Hard Place

Many Facebook users are engaged on the social network in order to communicate with friends and family members or others they know in real life. These individuals may not welcome privacy changes that make it possible for unknown persons to find their profiles and send them messages. Obvious use cases are celebrities and people concerned about online harassment or stalking. But beyond these specific examples, people who care about a certain level of privacy might not want random people to have access to their inbox. With other messaging programs, you can control who has access—with email, for example, by keeping your personal email address limited to close friends, or with Twitter direct messages by choosing who you follow.

Unfortunately, Facebook has made it extremely difficult for users to truly protect their inboxes from unwanted communications. Facebook has banned pseudonyms and adopted a strict real names policy. (Unless, perhaps, you're in Germany...) The social network has also removed a privacy setting that would allow users to suppress their profiles from appearing in the internal Facebook search. Combined with these prior changes, the newest adjustment to Facebook's privacy settings has backed privacy-seeking users into a corner. If you have a Facebook account, you can't efficiently hide it without breaking the terms of service. And now, Facebook is letting people pay for access to your inbox.

With regards to its new "inbox delivery test," Facebook says it will "continue to iterate and evolve Facebook Messages over the coming months." We're urging Facebook to, at a minimum, allow users to opt out of having strangers pay to send them messages. If users don't want random people paying to get inbox priority, let them turn that feature off. And we urge Facebook to allow users a way to block senders or mark messages as spam without signalling to the sender whether a message has been read.


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