It seems as if Mark Zuckerberg has finally seen the light. Following scandal after scandal for Facebook, the social networking behemoth that he founded, Zuckerberg announced a new “privacy-focused vision” for the future. “I believe we should be working towards a world where people can speak privately and live freely knowing that their information will only be seen by who they want to see it,” Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post on March 7.
Pivoting to privacy would represent a massive shift for Facebook, a company that is an exemplar of the “surveillance capitalism” framework. It exists to suck up information about you, whether you know you are giving it or not, and to turn that information into actionable intelligence for advertisers (and, as several elections have shown, political players). Its multi-billion dollar market cap is based on how much data it has collected, scraped and, in many cases, stolen. A Facebook that cares about privacy, simply put, is not Facebook.
If you went by the headlines about his blog post, one would gather the impression that Zuckerberg is willing to dismantle the giant private surveillance machine that he built in order to “set out where we stand, to decide how we value private communications, and who gets to decide how long and where data should be stored”.
Bait and switch
Except that is not what Zuckerberg is saying.
Paying closer attention to his 3,200-word blog post makes it clear that Zuckerberg is not doing away with Facebook’s data-hungry engine anytime soon. Instead, the Facebook founder wants to build (or repurpose) another platform to capture the users who want a way to communicate privately and directly without having their messages remain around forever, not unlike various features on WhatsApp (which Facebook owns), Telegram or Snapchat.
As Zuckerberg put it, the consumer interest is evident:
“Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication. There are a number of reasons for this. Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends. People are more cautious of having a permanent record of what they’ve shared. And we all expect to be able to do things like payments privately and securely.”
And don’t forget, that is also coupled with concerns that the core Facebook product, particularly the News Feed (which, users may not remember, was not always a part of the social network) is turning off users and losing them by the millions.
What Zuckerberg is proposing is another platform, focused on messaging that will sit beside Facebook, and let you communicate securely, privately and in a manner that means messages do not last forever. It has already begun integrating the back-end messaging systems across Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, promising end-to-end encryption across all these platforms. The core Facebook app will continue to have its tentacles all over the web and into the real world, scooping up as much data as possible about you, but your communications can remain secret and feel safe.
As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson put it, Facebook wants to have its privacy cake and eat it to. (Or to use a metaphor that is closer to home, it wants to have both the TimesNow and MirrorNow of the online world).
As Thompson and others have explained, this proposition has given Zuckerberg a PR victory even though it has done nothing to alter its approach to privacy when to comes to Facebook. Meanwhile, presuming a move to private, ephemeral communications is inevitable, having Facebook own an app providing that will only secure its pre-eminent position online:
“They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be.”
Break up Big Tech?
This may mean several things: It may still be hard for Facebook, the company, to pivot into building such an operation (even if Facebook, the product, is not changing that much). It may also be good news for consumers that one of the social media giants is so committed to encryption and privacy in communications. And yet, despite these two things, nothing about Facebook’s deeply problematic surveillance engine may end up changing.
But maybe that change is more likely to come from outside than from within. The innumerable data leaks and privacy scandals and growing fears that devices and algorithms will control us instead of the other way around, has made it acceptable to talk about regulating big tech companies. US Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has even proposed breaking up Facebook, Amazon, Google and others. Even if Zuckerberg has not yet seen the light, there is no dearth of people trying to shine a torch in his face. Will 2019 be the year they succeed?