Facebook complicates privacy settings and hides users’ email addresses, favoring its own messaging platform

Facebook appears to have hidden users’ third-party email addresses from Timeline, but left users’ Facebook.com addresses visible. It has also added a confusing new setting to the email portion of a user’s contact info.

Although users can choose which of their email addresses are displayed on Timeline and change the privacy setting for each address, it is odd Facebook has hidden addresses that users had previously indicated they wanted to share with friends or the public. This seems like a deliberate move to promote its own messaging service over others, but instead of changing users’ privacy settings to do it, the social network simply added a second setting.

In addition to being able to manage the privacy setting of each email address they have connected to their accounts, users now have another setting to control whether to “show” or “hide” that account on Timeline. This makes it difficult for users to understand which addresses they are sharing. As seen in the example below, the privacy setting for the Yahoo account is “friends,” as it has been for years. The Facebook.com address is set to “only me,” as indicated by the lock icon. But when Facebook added the second setting to the right, it defaulted all non-Facebook.com accounts to “hidden from Timeline” and left Facebook.com accounts as “shown on Timeline.” The social network does honor the “only me” setting so the Facebook.com address is not visible to anyone it wasn’t intended for, but it makes the user experience quite unclear.

In April, Facebook made a vague announcement about “updating addresses on Facebook to make them consistent across our site.” It did not say that it would hide users’ non-Facebook.com addresses. It simply said, “Now, the address people use to get to your Timeline and send you email on Facebook will be the same.” However, users’ Facebook email addresses had always used the same address as their personalized URLs, so this did not seem to be news at the time.

Now Facebook is referencing this press release to suggest that it did, in fact, let users know that it would be making a change to how email addresses appear on Timeline. It provided us and other news outlets with the following statement:

“As we announced back in April, we’ve been updating addresses on Facebook to make them consistent across our site. In addition to everyone receiving an address, we’re also rolling out a new setting that gives people the choice to decide which addresses they want to show on their Timelines. Ever since the launch of Timeline, people have had the ability to control what posts they want to show or hide on their own Timelines, and today we’re extending that to other information they post, starting with the Facebook address.”

However, the ability to decide which email address to show or hide on a user’s profile predates Timeline. Users have been able to do this since as early as 2010. What’s new is the confusing second setting we discussed above. Further, we’ve heard from users that this setting has been live for them since last Monday, if not earlier.

Facebook is most often criticized for revealing too much of user’s information, not for hiding it. But when it comes to email, things get complicated for the social network. In 2010, Facebook and Google were involved in a public dispute over the issue of how email contacts should be used. Facebook would not allow users to export their friends’ email addresses, but it helped Gmail users manually download their Gmail contacts and then re-upload them to the social network. Facebook also allowed users to import their friends’ e-mail addresses when they were using Microsoft or Yahoo services.

We wonder whether Facebook’s latest change to hide email addresses is more than just a way to promote its own messaging feature over third-party email services, and if it could be related to preventing contact importing and exporting. A Facebook spokesperson could not comment on this issue.