Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook's 2015 F8 Developer Conference. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

Mark Zuckerberg To Make Case To Developers That Privacy Is A Good Thing

On a May morning, Mark Zuckerberg, weeks after an intense grilling by members of Congress, made what would be his first public address, telling a room full of developers:

We have real challenges to address, but we have to keep [our optimism for the future] as well. And what I’ve learned this year is that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility; it’s not enough to just build powerful tools. We need to make sure that they’re used for good and we will…”

For Facebook’s chief executive, his speech appeared to be part mea culpa and part inspirational, suggesting that the company had a way forward, one that would make things better. And it wouldn’t be an easy job either especially since the thing that caused extreme pessimism in Facebook was the Cambridge Analytica scandal that emerged two months prior. But a year later, things haven’t appeared to be getting any better for Facebook with repeated scandals, a potential record-setting fine looming over the company’s head, and an exodus of some of Zuckerberg’s top executives, including one of his lieutenants.

Amid all the bad news, Facebook has made some progress, including learning how to address misinformation and stem election manipulation from foreign actors, modifying its API to prevent third-party developers from doing duplicitous things with data, although it does have more work to do, and removed accounts deemed to have inauthentic behavior. But this week, as Zuckerberg takes the stage, a year after his company hit a massive stumbling block on his success, it falls once again to him to not only humble himself to the public but also convince it and the thousands of developers in attendance at the company’s annual conference, to embrace his new vision for Facebook, one that embraces privacy over being public.

Privacy is the new Like

For more than 15 years, Facebook has been suggesting that we share our lives to the public, touting that by using its platform and sharing that data with apps, we’re able to build a closer community and make the world a smaller place. While there were smatterings of controversy throughout the years around privacy, Facebook seems to have mollified the masses by releasing privacy tweaks and reminders for its now-more than 1.56 billion daily active users to check their settings.

After numerous high-profile incidents in the past year, Zuckerberg seems to realize that privacy is now important to his users and also that while his company has dominated the web and the mobile app space, now it’s time to turn its attention towards becoming the next WeChat for the world.

As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.

Mark Zuckerberg, “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking

For some this might seem laughable — a company built around collecting data about our lives and letting us be social across the internet, now wants to be the stewards of our privacy? Certainly, questions remain about his vision and how it’ll be executed but don’t expect an overhaul of the core Facebook platform.

What we know is that it’ll be focused on three of the top messaging-related apps in the market today: Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Zuckerberg’s plan is to “integrate” them together (not merge), meaning unify their infrastructure so users could hopefully communicate across apps seamlessly. Here’s how Facebook’s CEO laid it this new privacy-focused platform:

  • Private interactions. People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share.
  • Encryption. People’s private communications should be secure. End-to-end encryption prevents anyone — including us — from seeing what people share on our services. Reducing Permanence. People should be comfortable being themselves, and should not have to worry about what they share coming back to hurt them later. So we won’t keep messages or stories around for longer than necessary to deliver the service or longer than people want them.
  • Safety. People should expect that we will do everything we can to keep them safe on our services within the limits of what’s possible in an encrypted service.
  • Interoperability. 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.
  • Secure data storage. People should expect that we won’t store sensitive data in countries with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression in order to protect data from being improperly accessed.

Will developers be left behind?

What helped Facebook standout from its social networking competitors in its early days was its platform, enabling third-party developers to build on top of it, which led to viral games from Zynga, King, and others, along with Facebook’s prominent Social Graph. So this pivot by Facebook, one from being a public to a more privacy-focused social network, could give developers pause and wonder what’s going to happen to them. At this year’s F8 conference, Zuckerberg will have to be receptive to those concerns and tell developers that they’re going to be along for the ride and how they should adjust their thinking.

But Facebook isn’t going to immediately realize its vision — it’ll take years before it’s privacy-focused. Its push has even led some to question Facebook’s strategy and caused resignations within the company, like Chief Product Officer Chris Cox. It will be worth watching to see if Zuckerberg addresses not only the company’s eventual course correction but also how developers should be more secure with how they handle user data. For more than a year, Facebook has locked down its APIs and increased scrutiny in apps such as personality quizzes.

At Facebook’s F8 conference in 2016, CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted the company’s vision for the future and how its products tied together. (Photo credit: Ken Yeung)

What will the opportunities for developers be with the new messaging ecosystem it plans on building? Certainly not chatbots, right? It’s done that before and ultimately that hasn’t exactly caught on like with WeChat. Will we see Facebook become more like TikTok? Even more like Snapchat? Or something else?

Hopefully, Zuckerberg will reveal his updated 10-year roadmap that he debuted years ago that shows how a more privacy-focused Facebook works across not only as a traditional social network, but also in messaging apps, in virtual reality, and in hardware.

Public forum to address controversies

In just the past week, Facebook has been barraged with bad news such as investigations by the New York Attorney General’s office, the Irish and Canadian governments, and also revealed that it was preparing to be fined up to $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission over Cambridge Analytica. At F8, it’ll be another opportunity for Zuckerberg to talk uninterrupted in a place where he might feel comfortable, among developers like himself, without being peppered with questions from the press in attendance.

There’s certainly a laundry list of things he has to talk about and he will have to make the case for why Facebook is turning a page, showing real progress in protecting privacy amid repeated stumblings, and that it can be effective in making the world a better place, not one in which its technology has helped sow disinformation and dissension among the masses. This is the purpose of Zuckerberg’s vision:

Doing this means taking positions on some of the most important issues facing the future of the internet. As a society, we have an opportunity 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.

Mark Zuckerberg, “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking

What else to expect from Facebook?

Besides Zuckerberg’s keynote on Tuesday, it’s likely we’ll hear more about messaging and maybe more tools around Stories, which have been a growth area for the company — Facebook Stories is being used by more than 500 million people daily, according to its latest quarterly earnings report.

Virtual reality will also be front and center at F8 as it typically has for the past few years. On the conference’s second day, expect to hear more news about Oculus and what it has going on, including new games, perhaps? Will we hear an update to when Oculus Quest will be released? It was supposed to be available this spring, but nothing has been made available.

Expect a futuristic look at mixed reality with Michael Abrash, Oculus’ chief scientist, who for the past few years has offered his knowledge on where the industry is going and what it means for developers.

We’ll find out more this week when F8 kicks off at 10am PT!