Facebook is happy to protect user data when doing so decreases the company’s civic responsibilities — but not when it threatens advertising revenue.
I was tempted to roll my eyes on Wednesday when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, posted a manifesto outlining his plan to make social networking more “privacy-focused” and less about the public disclosure of information.
Why take seriously someone who has repeatedly promised — but seldom delivered — improvements to Facebook’s privacy practices? This is a company, after all, that signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission agreeing to improve how it handles the personal information of its users, after federal regulators filed charges against it for deceiving consumers about their privacy. That was about seven years ago, and it has been one scandal after another since.
But I don’t believe in cynicism: Things can get better if we want them to — through regulatory oversight and political pressure. That said, I also don’t believe in being a sucker. So I read Mr. Zuckerberg’s plan with a keen eye on distinguishing meaningful changes from mere platitudes and evasions.
The platitudes were there, as I expected, but the evasions were worse than I anticipated: The plan, in effect, is to entrench Facebook’s interests while sidestepping all the important issues.
Here are four pressing questions about privacy that Mr. Zuckerberg conspicuously did not address: Will Facebook stop collecting data about people’s browsing behavior, which it does extensively? Will it stop purchasing information from data brokers who collect or “scrape” vast amounts of data about billions of people, often including information related to our health and finances? Will it stop creating “shadow profiles” — collections of data about people who aren’t even on Facebook? And most important: Will it change its fundamental business model, which is based on charging advertisers to take advantage of this widespread surveillance to “micro-target” consumers?
Until Mr. Zuckerberg gives us satisfying answers to those questions, any effort to make Facebook truly “privacy-focused” is sure to disappoint.
Most of Mr. Zuckerberg’s post was devoted to acknowledging familiar realities about social media and citing familiar solutions. He noted that Facebook’s users don’t want to be pushed to be so public; they mostly want to keep in touch with people close to them, often using several of the company’s other services: Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. He also noted that users are hungry for less permanent communication features devised by other companies. So Facebook will continue to emulate Snapchat’s ephemeral messaging.
To be fair, there were some genuinely new announcements. For instance, Mr. Zuckerberg said that the company would expand end-to-end encryption of messaging, which prevents Facebook — or anyone other than the participants in a conversation — from seeing the content of messages. I’m certainly in favor of messaging privacy: It is a cornerstone of the effort to push back against the cloud of surveillance that has descended over the globe.
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But what we really need — and it is not clear what Facebook has in mind — is privacy for true person-to-person messaging apps, not messaging apps that also allow for secure mass messaging.
At the moment, critics can (and have) held Facebook accountable for its failure to adequately moderate the content it disseminates — allowing for hate speech, vaccine misinformation, fake news and so on. Once end-to-end encryption is put in place, Facebook can wash its hands of the content. We don’t want to end up with all the same problems we now have with viral content online — only with less visibility and nobody to hold responsible for it.
It’s also worth noting that encrypted messaging, in addition to releasing Facebook from the obligation to moderate content, wouldn’t interfere with the surveillance that Facebook conducts for the benefit of advertisers. As Mr. Zuckerberg admitted in an interview after he posted his plan, Facebook isn’t “really using the content of messages to target ads today anyway.” In other words, he is happy to bolster privacy when doing so would decrease Facebook’s responsibilities, but not when doing so would decrease its advertising revenue.
Another point that Mr. Zuckerberg emphasized in his post was his intention to make Facebook’s messaging platforms, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, “interoperable.” He described this decision as part of his “privacy-focused vision,” though it is not clear how doing so — which would presumably involve sharing user data — would serve privacy interests.
Merging those apps just might, however, serve Facebook’s interest in avoiding antitrust remedies. Just as regulators are realizing that allowing Facebook to gobble up all its competitors (including WhatsApp and Instagram) may have been a mistake, Mr. Zuckerberg decides to scramble the eggs to make them harder to separate into independent entities. What a coincidence.
In short, the few genuinely new steps that Mr. Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday seem all too conveniently aligned with Facebook’s needs, whether they concern government regulation, public scandal or profitability. This supposed shift toward a “privacy-focused vision” looks more to me like shrewd competitive positioning, dressed up in privacy rhetoric.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, likes to say that the company’s problem is that it has been “way too idealistic.” I think the problem is the invasive way it makes its money and its lack of meaningful oversight. Until those things change, I don’t expect any shift by the company toward privacy to matter much.