Much Ado About Nothing

Why Facebook’s new “privacy focused” vision is probably not that big of a deal.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Mark Zuckerberg published a 3,200-word essay in March about what he called a new “privacy focused vision” for social networking. This lengthy treatise represented quite a shift for the same man who wrote in 2012 that it was Facebook’s social mission to make the world “more open and connected”. This could be seen as either contrite capitulation, especially given the slew of bad press Facebook has received over the past year, or a calculated move to shore up the company’s image.

In truth, it’s probably a mix of both, but there’s good reason to be skeptical. Private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are the fastest growing areas of online communication today, according to him, and this opens up an opportunity to “build a simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first”. That sounds nice and modest, but the problem is that Zuckerberg isn’t really saying anything new.

His focus on encrypted messaging feels more like an adoption of something that many people already value rather than some huge pivot in a completely new direction. Furthermore, Zuckerberg is simply building on something that we already know was in the works. Back in January, The New York Times reported that Facebook planned to integrated WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger to allow for cross-platform messaging, and this initiative plays a huge part in his latest missive.

Despite his attempts to make this shift sound cosier, safer, and more intimate – we’re moving from the town square to the living room! – this is still very much a pragmatic business decision. And that would actually still be okay, if Zuckerberg’s announcement wasn’t so devoid of what was actually going to change. He isn’t saying that Facebook is going to revamp its existing public platforms or replace them with these new “platforms for private sharing”. Instead, Facebook is going to be carrying out its plans to integrate all the messaging platforms it owns, in addition to keeping around its public platforms. After all, as Zuckerberg says, “public social networks will continue to be very important in people’s lives”.

But hey, it’s all going to be good, because everything is going to be encrypted end-to-end and Facebook isn’t going to store your data for long. Yeah, no. Don’t get me wrong. Encryption and privacy are definitely important, and I think Facebook and other messaging companies should pursue it. The problem lies in the way Zuckerberg is really taking what is a necessary shift in strategy and dressing it up to look like Facebook found some magical solution to the privacy problems that have dogged it.

Nothing is really changing, other than the fact that Facebook is looking to beef up its messaging services. To be fair, it’s a pretty smart and savvy move. Facebook has been seeing declining engagement over the past couple of years. In Q4 2018, 23 per cent of Facebook users were active, which is to say they updated their status or posted a comment, compared to 32 per cent a year go. In comparison, in Q3 2018, 63 per cent of internet users in the US shared articles and photos using messaging apps like WhatsApp, compared to the 55 per cent who did so on a public platform. The company is simply shifting its focus to where the action really is.

On top of that, there’s just no way Facebook is going to give up its public platform. It’s making too much money, and as a publicly traded company, Facebook is accountable to its shareholders and needs to keep the revenue streams flowing. To put things in perspective, consider the fact that despite all the scandal Facebook has endured in the past year, it still made more money last year than ever, boasting a 30 per cent year-on-year increase in revenue to US$16.9 billion in Q4 2018.

Finally, the most glaring weakness about Zuckerberg’s argument is his narrow definition of privacy. The bulk of his message is dedicated to privacy in terms of encryption, and in this way he avoids talking about the major flaws in Facebook’s business model that has drawn so much public ire. Privacy isn’t just about making sure your messages aren’t read or intercepted by third parties. In fact, it’s arguably more about the data you put on Facebook and what it does with it, something which Zuckerberg markedly failed to address this time.

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Encryption and privacy are definitely important, and I think Facebook and other messaging companies should pursue it.