Facebook's e-mail debacle: One 'bug' fix, but rollback impossible

commentary So the problems users were up in arms about over the weekend weren't, in fact, user error. What a shock.

Facebook changed its 900+ million users' primary e-mail address a week ago, setting in motion a continually cascading series of failures.

Users have lost unknown amounts of e-mail , and address books were unknowingly overwritten. Facebook's first official response yesterday was that everyone was just confused about how to look in their Facebook inboxes.

Now they've changed their tune. But their admission of intercepted and lost e-mail, questions about privacy ethics, and new issues around Apple iOS 6 show that Facebook's Apple app is also adding secondary, undeletable contacts into users' address books.

Facebook responded to our first article documenting the problems and citing widespread user anger, with spokesperson Meredith Chin saying:

Regarding the "email loss" this may actually just be confusion around the Messages Inbox: By default, messages from friends or friends of friends go into your Inbox. Everything else goes to your Other folder.

(If you click on Messages in your left hand navigation menu, you'll see below it an Other folder that drops down.) That is likely where the messages are being sent from other people's emails. Even if that person is friends with them on Facebook, if the friend doesn't have that email on their Facebook account, the message could end up in the Other folder.

Rather than addressing the missing e-mail issue, Facebook seems fit to chalk up the e-mail interceptions as operator error: falling back on the notion that users either are not looking in the secondary inbox, or that users didn't tell the Facebook Messages system it was OK to receive e-mails from non-Facebook contacts.

All of which could be blamed on user incompetence -- if anyone had been aware that Facebook had changed their primary e-mails, made them public, and then Facebook changed individuals' contact information outside of Facebook on their contact's phones, devices, and computers (via the API's synch).

Now Facebook tells us today:

If someone sends you an email to your @facebook.com email address and it's from an address associated with a Facebook friend or friend of friend's accounts, it will go into the inbox. If it's from an address not associated with a friend or friend of friend's Facebook account, it will go into your other folder.

However, if you've specified in privacy settings that you only want to receive messages from friends or friend of friends, then the message will bounce.

We've noticed that in a very limited number of cases, the bounce e-mail back to the original sender may not be delivered because it may get intercepted by spam filters.

We are working to make sure that e-mail senders consistently receive bounce messages.

The last two lines are the closest we get to understanding the loss around the missing e-mail. Facebook is indeed intercepting messages -- the e-mail is clearly passing through Facebook's servers, but this seems to be where it stays, as neither sender nor receiver are getting a copy.

There is no word yet on how this may be affecting users' password recovery functions.

Blame the user?
Losing e-mails, user dissatisfaction, and API bugs are just that: bugs.

Making your company's e-mail address (running off your mail server) each user's primary and seeding it to everyone's contacts with it via sync-enabled apps is another thing entirely.

At Read Write Web:

So they changed our e-mail addresses to their facebook.com variant, THEN they force all email that doesn't come from their platform into an email purgatory, THEN they have the nerve to call us confused? Do they understand that this is affecting our daily lives? In some cases our livelyhood? Do they understand that this level of fuckup is in an entirely different category from a new UI update? I think they are the ones that are confused, and in far over their head.

Facebook is short on apologies but did say that one of the synching issues may have come from a bug in their API.

Contact synchronization disaster
Today Facebook also admitted that its API for contact sync on phone and device apps was set -- on which devices and systems we're not told -- to take an individual's most recently added e-mail address and overwrite their correct contact e-mail in everyone's address books with the new e-mail.

Facebook told us:

Contact synchronization on devices is performed through an API. For most devices, we've verified that the API is working correctly and pulling the primary email address associated with the users' Facebook account.

However, for people on certain devices, a bug meant that the device was pulling the last email address added to the account rather than the primary email address, resulting in @facebook.com addresses being pulled.

We are in the process of fixing this issue and it will be resolved soon. After that, those specific devices should pull the correct addresses.

As long as the correct address is the e-mail address that the user chose themselves, that is; as far as the API knows, the @Facebook e-mail address was the true and correct address for the user.

On Reddit:

Man, I can't wait to send an email to my boss, pertaining to work (who happens to be a FB friend too) and not have him get it until he checks his f*cking Facebook messages because all of my contacts are changed.

This kind of "bug" is something that can't be rolled back. It remains to be seen how many people have been made unreachable, and for how long.

The Apple iOS 6 Facebook integration catastrophe
Like with Facebook apps running off the API, Apple's iOS 6 changed address books without users knowing about it.

When users became aware that automatic altering of users' contacts without notification was built into Apple's new iOS 6 Facebook integration -- that Facebook for iOS will change address books without any warning -- many people voiced concern that this, and the whole mess, top to bottom, was not in line with Apple's values.

On Hacker News:

iOS6 is still in Beta. be nice to see Apple haul Facebook through the hot coals (?) for this.

At Gizmodo Sam Biddle documented his new Facebook address book experience after the upgrade, showing that:

(...) there's now a second, duplicate contact, with nothing but Facebook information (usually just their Facebook email address). These contacts cannot be deleted.

Gizmodo quoted a reader describing the effects of Facebook's iOS 6 catastrophe:

Since Facebook changed the email addresses on contacts, I've actually lost every single one of my email addresses including those for work. Emails to my boss have gone unanswered as they've been going to his Facebook! Driven me insane and absolutely horrid move for Facebook. Very much regretting wishing for this whole Facebook integration thing now!

Unfortunately, there is no rollback in a situation like this.

Apple might be able to salvage the relationship with Facebook, but it's pretty clear that Facebook's relationship with users has hit the rocks.

About the author

Violet Blue is a Forbes Web Celeb, CBSi/ZDNet blogger and columnist, a high-profile tech personality and one of Wired's Faces of Innovation. She is an expert in the field of sex and technology, a sex-positive mainstream media pundit (MacLife, CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Show) and has been interviewed, quoted and featured in outlets ranging from ABC News to the Wall Street Journal. A feature writer and columnist since 1998, Violet has authored and edited many award-winning, best selling books in six translations; a book sample can be found on Oprah.com. She was a notorious sex columnist for Hearst's San Francisco Chronicle, and Forbes calls her "omnipresent on the web." She headlines at global conferences including ETech, LeWeb, SXSW: Interactive and two Google Tech Talks at Google, Inc. and received a standing ovation at Seattle's Gnomedex. The London Times named Blue "one of the 40 bloggers who really count." She is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET.

 

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