Mark Zuckerberg has a new mantra: “The future is private.”
It’s an extraordinary statement, given the messenger. Facebook has been mired in one privacy scandal or another almost its entire life, and the last two year have been a non-stop rollercoaster of red-hot crises. But the 34-year-old billionaire is leaning hard into a so-called pivot to privacy, and on Tuesday he laid out more of his vision for the future of his suite of apps at developer conference F8, the biggest event of the year for Facebook.
This revolves around six core principles: Private interactions, encryption, reduced permanence, interoperability, and secure data storage. But the way Facebook defines privacy isn’t the way ordinary people might understand it.
When people talk about privacy in relation to Facebook, what they’re often talking about is privacy from Facebook and its ravenous algorithms. The company has mishandled users’ data repeatedly and on an unprecedented scale, while building immensely complex internal profiles of these users for advertising purposes.
Facebook now plans to encrypt users’ messages to one another by default — and yes, this will mean that Facebook can no longer read your private communications with friends.
There’s a reason why investors aren’t spooked
But the $550 billion company will still build up a sophisticated picture of who you are, what you do, who you talk to, the brands you like, the locations you visit, the schools you attend, the friends you have, the websites you visit and how long you visit them, the external advertisers who have your data, the pages you like, the communities you’re a part of, the public posts you make, your family members and their own interests, the events you buy, the friends you secretly want to have sex with, the retailers you buy from, the videos you watch, the hobbies you have, and (so much) more, which is then all fed into a bewilderingly complex and opaque set of algorithms to profile you and hyper-target you with ads.
Beneath all the privacy bells and whistle, and behind a shiny new coat of white paint, the fundamental advertising machine remains unchanged.
Imagine you’re having a chat with your closest friend, while a businessman sits in the room wearing earplugs. The man assures you that he can’t hear what you two are saying — but he is remembering everything about where you are, who you’re talking with, what you’re wearing, and more, and then using this information to try to sell you stuff for weeks afterwards. That’s not privacy in any traditional sense of the word.
It’s telling that Facebook’s announcement about privacy hasn’t spooked investors, with Facebook’s stock continuing to climb steadily since the March 2019 announcement from Zuckerberg.
You’re not really leaving Facebook’s garden
Zuckerberg’s unconventional approach to definitions extends to “interoperability” as well.
Normally, this would mean building services in such a way that they can communicate and be utilized across multiple platforms operated by different companies: Open standards, like a .JPEG image file that is openable on both Windows and MacOS, or an email that can be sent between Gmail and Yahoo Mail.
But Zuckerberg defined it far more narrowly, that “you should be able to use any of our apps to reach your friends.”
Facebook’s plan is to merge the back ends of Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram DMs, letting any user on one service message any service on one of the others. This may help users in the short-term, making it easier to chat with their friends, but it’s not interopability in the traditional, competition-enhancing sense of a truly open standard. You’re still in Facebook’s walled garden.
Real interopability could confer huge benefits to users communicating across platforms — but would also risk eroding Facebook’s dominance of the messaging ecosystem.
Facebook’s rhetoric is made all the more remarkable by the fact that for the last decade, the company has repeatedly touted the benefits of openness, suggesting that worries about privacy are overblown. “The way that people think about privacy is changing a bit,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with Time Magazine in 2010. “What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.”
(Kevin Roose and Mike Isaac, two technology reporters at The New York Times, suggested on Twitter Facebook’s rhetoric shift amounted to “gaslighting.”)
Now, faced with mounting public scrutiny and the growing risk of regulatory action — Facebook claims to be going under a seismic shift. But it does little to address broader questions about Facebook’s impact on society, shies away from any truly revolutionary change that might put the company’s position at risk, and leaves the company’s cash-printing capabilities intact.
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