Facebook Touts Privacy Future, But Critics Question Sincerity

“Today we are going to talk about building a privacy-focused social platform,” said Mark Zuckerberg as he began his keynote address at this year’s F8 developer conference. Facebook’s soon-to-be 35-year old chief executive took the stage to introduce the world to what he hoped his creation could become, one that pressured its users to be in public to be one that protected users’ privacy.

For Zuckerberg, it was a moment akin to someone who declared themselves a presidential candidate weeks ago and now holds an official rally. It was time for Facebook’s CEO to sell the idea to the public.

After 15 years, Facebook has functioned like what Zuckerberg described as a digital time square. Many social platforms have made similar claims in the past (e.g. Twitter) but Facebook was perhaps the closest:

We have focused on building Facebook and Instagram into the digital equivalents of the town square where you could do almost anything that you’d want with a lot of people at once or you could stay in touch with all of your friends, meet new people who share your interest, start businesses, organize fundraisers for causes that you care about.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at F8 2019

While Facebook has made the world a smaller place and connected more than 2 billion people, it has had to deal with significant problems that no other before it has had to figure out. Controversy after controversy, the company has had to dig its way out from not only its “Move Fast and Break Things” mantra but also its push for making user information public. So now it’s opting to pivot, executing a vision Zuckerberg declared as “the future is private”. During his speech, Facebook’s CEO sought to persuade the public that he was sincere and that the company was going to slowly turn the page on a hellish year, but after all the announcements in which words like “privacy” and “encryption” were uttered, critics remain skeptical.

Taking a wait and see approach

“We’ll believe it when we see it,” remarked Gennie Gebhart, the associate director of research with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in a statement. “Announcing a plan to roll out end-to-end encryption across Facebook’s messengers is one thing. Actually implementing that plan is entirely another. Secure messaging is not easy to get right, and there are a lot of places where the company could deliver something that does not live up to end-to-end encryption’s security and privacy guarantees.”

Facebook spent last year apologizing for its mistakes and this year it looked to cast the appearance of decisiveness, presenting a new way forward complete with product updates that naturally came baked with privacy concerns in mind. And on the surface it looks like Facebook gets it, from privacy-focused messaging infrastructure, bringing end-to-end encryption to its Portal hardware device, a redesign of Facebook around groups, and testing anti-bullying mechanisms on Instagram. But then you look at the slate of other announcements and it’s almost like business as usual: Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest releases, updates to Facebook Dating, new stickers and AR effects, ability to buy more things on Instagram, Marketplace expansion, and more.

“Some announcements today don’t quite line up with the privacy vision the company has been paying so much lip service to recently,” Gebhart stated. “Facebook Dating and Secret Crush seem like the last places you should double down as a privacy-challenged company trying to become a privacy-focused one. I’m also skeptical of Messenger’s new focus on “close friends” given Facebook’s ongoing efforts to help businesses (not your friends!) contact and learn more about users through it.”

It seems Facebook just wants to scratch the surface of privacy. So how can we believe this massive company, especially when it didn’t address things like misinformation and what The Verge‘s Casey Newton cited as the public broadcasting model of social networking. Zuckerberg acknowledged critics during his speech, but his response was striking, almost like he thought it was funny.

“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we are serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” he said slightly chuckling. “But I’m committed to doing this well and to starting a new chapter for our product. And it’s going to take time. I’m sure we’ll be unearthing old issues for a while…”

It’s hard to turn a behemoth like Facebook as it continues to speed across the ocean, so should we be surprised if additional scandals emerge? Probably not and the company seems to be anticipating it. But after all its claims that it’s now thinking about privacy-first, not HTML5-first or mobile-first, is this a new chapter for Facebook?

Privacy: viewable by all or buried under the surface?

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a second. What if (and a big what-if at that) Facebook’s real action isn’t going to be something the general public sees, but buried deep within its infrastructure? Looking at the messaging announcements from F8, much of that happens in the pipes versus fancy features that users will get to use, and this might also apply to Facebook’s “FB5” website and app redesign. That may make some sense but its history begs to differ so Facebook will have to do more to win back the trust from a lot of users.

As my friend Owen Williams noted earlier this week, while we may be caught up with the updates to Facebook’s messaging ecosystem, the reality is that it’s under the guise of “privacy”. The social networking company is still getting our data and adapting to the changing behaviors of how people use the internet and technology.

I’m not convinced that merging these platforms is really about users’ needs at all. In all likelihood, this is about Facebook knowing more about its users, regardless of where they’re chatting, for the sake of its ad business.

Owen Williams, “Facebook’s Plan to Fuse Its Messaging Apps Is Not About Your Privacy

Facebook has remained the dominate one in its class for nearly two decades but it’s starting to see new competitors from different adjacencies like TikTok, so it has to make strides to scale even more. But in doing so, it’s exposing more of its weaknesses and having to really undergo a transformation. Zuckerberg admitted that this push to be more private-focused will take years. After all, it took more than 15 years to accumulate so much data about the public before it became weaponized, so now if Facebook wants to survive, it’ll have to try a new approach.

The problem is: not everyone is buying it.