Mark Zuckerberg wrote an essay about Facebook’s new privacy direction. Here are the bits that should allow you to talk about it in the pub and sound like you’ve read it.
On Wednesday, Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg published a long (3000+ words) blog-post outlining the company’s “vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.”
One of the key observations he makes is that the fastest growing areas of online communication are private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups.
At the core of this growth, Zuck diagnoses, is privacy now and in the future. Now, because people want their day-to-day messaging to be secure; in the future, because an open social medium creates a public record of our mistakes that can come back to bite us.
The open, public social network has been fundamental to the core Facebook experience, and Zuckerberg believes it will continue to be valuable to people’s lives. “But now, with all the ways people also want to interact privately, there’s also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first.”
Zuckerberg notes his readers’ scepticism that his company has either the ability or desire to rebuild the platform with privacy in mind. “[F]rankly”, he writes, “we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing.”
He takes as an example one of Facebook’s most used apps, WhatsApp, which it acquired in 2014. In 2016, the app built in end-to-end encryption, a feature that will become a principle of the “privacy-focused platform”.
“People’s private communications should be secure. End-to-end encryption prevents anyone – including us – from seeing what people share on our services.”
Facebook has a lot of work to do here. Despite both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger offering encryption (for the former it is default, but not for the latter), a broader adoption of encryption will present challenges to an already sluggish part of the business. From an advertising standpoint, the company has worked on creating ‘Click-to-Messenger’ ads in the news feed, that take users straight to a conversation with businesses in Messenger and WhatsApp. It has not, however, disclosed the number of businesses using the feature.
While Zuckerberg extols the virtues of encryption – “I’ve spoken with dissidents who’ve told me encryption is the reason they are free, or even alive” – he adds that the company is working to improve its ability to stop bad actors across the platform “by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can’t see the content of the messages”.
In a moment that brings home the extent to which our lives are impacted by the actions and moral decisions of one company, he concludes: “That seems right to me, as long as we take the time to build the appropriate safety systems that stop bad actors as much as we possibly can within the limits of an encrypted service.”
Messaging across apps
On top of that, Zuckerberg introduces a seemingly contradictory idea: “people should be able to use any of our apps to reach their friends, and they should be able to communicate across networks easily and securely.” There had been an indication that Facebook was planning such a step at the end of January. The news brought up significant questions about the price of such a move for the consumer, the extent of the work required at the development level, while also attracting regulatory scrutiny as the company flexes the monopoly position it has in the messaging space.
Encrypted interoperability presents a key opportunity for Facebook as it connects. Zuckerberg posits a use case for the consumer: “a person discovers a business on Instagram and easily transitions to their preferred messaging app for secure payments and customer support.” What does this mean for Facebook: it means it will function as both a brand building and activation channel in the WhatsApp stage, hoovering up ad dollars, before managing the relationships of people to businesses, and, finally, their payments. Not renowned for strategic moves sparked by altruism, interoperability, it seems, is good for Facebook’s bottom line.
One principle, meanwhile, feels more like a step in the right direction: reducing permanence. Like the stories feature, where content automatically expires after 24 hours, “this philosophy could be extended to all private content”. Zuckerberg writes that “we won’t keep messages or stories around for longer than necessary to deliver the service or longer than people want them.” A good step, but the real question surrounds the word necessary.
“For example, messages could be deleted after a month or a year by default. … Of course you’d have the ability to change the timeframe or turn off auto-deletion for your threads if you wanted. And we could also provide an option for you to set individual messages to expire after a few seconds or minutes if you wanted.”
It concerns also the collection of metadata, which Facebook uses to run spam and safety systems, “but we don’t always need to keep it around for a long time,” he says. While he states the aim of collecting less personal data in the first place, this data is fundamentally part of Facebook’s special sauce. It will be interesting to see how he squares that circle of having less data and keeping the profits rolling in.
There are plenty of reasons to treat the essay with scepticism as the company has consistently made headlines for flouting privacy. Because Facebook has done more than just be accused of privacy mis-steps: it has changed the way information flows around the world and now wields unprecedented power.
As Konstantin Kakaes notes in the MIT Technology Review:
“It is a newspaper. It is a post office and a telephone exchange. It is a forum for political debate, and it is a sports broadcaster. It’s a birthday-reminder service and a collective photo album. It is all of these things – and many others – combined.”
But it is a business, fundamentally, and one for whom privacy considerations are arriving perhaps just a little too late.
Read more around this topic in the May issue of Admap, which will consider data ethics.