Mark Zuckerberg is on a mission to rehabilitate Facebook’s image. The CEO announced his new “privacy-focused vision” for the social media platform this week – but it looks more like a PR stunt than anything else.
“Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks,”Zuckerberg wrote. Now, is there anyone who really believes Facebook was built to give people “the freedom to be themselves?”
Zuckerberg does understand, however, why people are questioning Facebook’s newfound commitment to privacy, “…because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.” For a company plagued with privacy scandal after privacy scandal, that seems like a bit of an understatement.
Putting "Privacy-focussed" in the headline is a great strategy, but none of the things mentioned stop Facebook knowing who you are, your location, mobile number, who you're connected to, linking this to other data sets, or following you around the web https://t.co/iKhYUtl4CC pic.twitter.com/UeRRpxWzz2
— Jeremy Burge @ WWDC (@jeremyburge) March 6, 2019
Still, reading through Zuckerberg’s grand vision for a new kind of privacy-focused Facebook, we are given the impression that the company is about to completely revamp itself from top to bottom – but the only real concrete change proposed is one that critics are already saying might not enhance privacy that much and isn’t even really motivated by privacy concerns at all.
Essentially, Zuckerberg plans to integrate Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram direct messages to build a kind of single, end-to-end messaging system (which we’ve actually known-about since January). This change is because he now believes “the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure.”
While it’s nice that Zuckerberg has suddenly realized that people value their privacy online, and end-to-end encryption for private conversations is obviously a positive step, his critics aren’t entirely buying the new image. One technology writer described the move as “a power grab disguised as an act of contrition.”
Why? Because the long-winded spiel about the importance of privacy masks the fact that Zuckerberg’s real motivation for combining the three services is to stave off efforts by US and EU regulators to force the unbundling of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram and introduce new competition to the market.
Does anybody think that Facebook owning Instagram and WhatsApp is a good thing for America, privacy, journalism, or anything except Zuck & shareholders getting rich?
Breaking up Facebook from Instagram and WhatsApp seems like the least radical idea, and I hope we do it soon.
— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) March 7, 2019
Zuckerberg is now firmly on a collision course with regulators around the world. Germany’s antitrust body ruled last month that Facebook was abusing its dominant position in the market by combining the three services. Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote, has been “obsessed” with creating an “intimate environment” for WhatsApp users. But an “intimate” feeling “environment” isn’t really going to cut it. Facebook has already been fined $122 million by the EU for misleading antitrust regulators when it said its WhatsApp acquisition would not mean user information from the two platforms would be combined (which, of course, it was).
Facebook exists primarily to sell advertisements – and its entire business model rests on mining our data to do just that. So while protecting private conversations is a good thing in and of itself, it doesn’t appear that anything else fundamental about Facebook will really be changing. Facebook still has a million other ways to get hold of our data and monitor our online activity – and even with stronger messaging encryption, Facebook can still use metadata to tell who we are talking to and when, which is valuable information in itself.
This wasn’t Zuckerberg’s first effort to redeem himself and do damage control for Facebook and its multiplying privacy scandals – and it certainly won’t be his last. A blog post laying out a blueprint for a “privacy-focused” company that doesn’t actually exist doesn’t mean much. Zuckerberg has been offering apologies left, right and center for the last year.
He doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to keeping his promises, though. Plenty of privacy tools Facebook has promised in the past never came to fruition. Remember that “clear history” button that Zuckerberg promised nearly two years ago and users are still waiting for today?
Anyone who thinks Facebook is really going to put its business model at risk, as it scrambles to shield itself from regulators and maintain its monolithic status is more than likely deluded.