Changes to Facebook: what will the 'privacy pivot' mean?

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In early March, Mark Zuckerberg posted a memo on Facebook outlining his vision for the company going forward with respect to privacy and data sharing. 

His ‘privacy focused vision for social networking’ came as something of a surprise, given the company’s difficulties in the past with privacy and sharing other people’s data as demonstrated by the widely publicised Cambridge Analytica scandal.  

Indeed, within the memo Zuckerberg focuses on a very narrow definition of privacy, in what he terms the ‘digital equivalent of the living room’ as opposed to the ‘town square’ metaphor Facebook has previously been designed to represent. As Guardian commentator Alex Hern notes, ‘he’s offering privacy on Facebook, but not necessarily privacy from Facebook.’ 

Zuckerberg’s memo has been largely greeted with scepticism. Here, we’ve examined what Zuckerberg says – and what it could mean for the future of Facebook. 


1.      Encrypted messaging 

In Zuckerberg’s memo, he heralds the notion of encrypted communications as exemplified by WhatsApp, which Facebook acquired in 2014. Encryption in messaging, particularly the ‘end to end’ encryption that WhatsApp and now Facebook Messenger uses, means that the only people who can access the content of messages are the sender and recipient. 

Zuckerberg expresses his firm belief in end to end encryption as the best path forward for messaging services and indicates his intention to implement end to end encryption across all messaging services. 

However, he does acknowledge the potential risks of this approach: ‘There are real safety concerns to address before we can implement end to end encryption across all our messaging services,’ he writes. Services like WhatsApp have been used in the past for various kinds of criminal activity as well as the spread of misinformation

End to end encryption is certainly a more private method of communication. However, while Facebook cannot access the content of messages sent in end to end encryption, there’s still plenty of data they can access such as who the message was sent to, the time it was sent and the location it was sent from. 


2.     Time limited storage 

Expanding from Facebook’s existing Stories feature, Zuckerberg says Facebook is considering implementing expiring messages, allowing messages to delete themselves after a predetermined period of time. 

This is a significant departure from the way Facebook has traditionally operated. In the memo, Zuckerberg acknowledges that while people enjoy keeping a public record of their lives on social media, private content that expires after a period of time could prevent embarrassing material from resurfacing and hurting people. 

This feature already exists to a certain extent in Facebook through its ‘Disappearing Messages’ feature, but the new way forward Zuckerberg proposes is an opt out feature, as opposed to the current opt in model. 


3.     Compatibility between message services

Another feature Zuckerberg suggests is the ability to send encrypted messages between the messaging platforms operated by Facebook – Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.  

Zuckerberg touts the privacy advantages inherent in this approach: ‘With the ability to message across our services… you’d be able to send an encrypted message to someone’s phone number using WhatsApp from Messenger.’

However, tech commentators have observed that there would certainly be side advantages to this approach for Facebook’s profit margin. It’s possible that Facebook is hoping to shift to a method of operating more similar to the immensely successful Chinese service WeChat, which makes a lot of money from processing financial transactions through its app. By consolidating services, Facebook would be better able to do similar things. 

Another possibility is that by consolidating its many platforms into an interconnected service it can fend off regulators from pulling apart Facebook under antitrust laws, established to prevent companies from creating a monopoly. Facebook has acquired a vast number of services (including Instagram and WhatsApp), If all Facebook’s services are irrevocably intermingled, separating them would become very difficult. 


4.     No word on data sharing

Some commentators have accused Zuckerberg in the wake of this memo of skirting the real privacy issue presented by Facebook: mass ‘data scraping’ and storage of private data, not only of Facebook users, but from ‘shadow profiles’ Facebook is able to create of people who aren’t on Facebook. 

As Taylor Hatmaker notes for Wired,‘ people might not want more privacy within Facebook – they want privacy because Facebook.’ It’s all well and good to shore up your own platforms from outside threats but that isn’t the crux of people’s concerns about the platform. Changes like the ones Zuckerberg suggests do little to prevent something like the Cambridge Analytica scandal from happening again. 

Will Facebook become a more private platform? Only time will tell. But while Facebook occupies such a central position within the social media marketplace, it’s important to note that where his focus shifts is a pretty good barometer of the future of social media and the structure of the online world. 

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Emma Bartlett