In recent year’s Facebook has become the very epitome of a data-hungry tech company, slurping up as much personal information as it can lay its hands on with absolutely no regard for its user’s personal privacy.
But somehow, after years of negative publicity and scandals ranging from the Cambridge Analytica controversy to the introduction of their own VPN, Onavo, which openly collected all user data rather than protecting it, Facebook has finally discovered privacy.
Zuckerberg belatedly embraces privacy
At least that’s what Mark Zuckerberg claimed yesterday in a rambling and lengthy blogpost in which he sought to paint a picture of his vision of a new privacy-friendly Facebook.
Suddenly, after years of fighting tooth and nail against the concept of user privacy, Zuckerberg suddenly sees it as an “opportunity”.
“I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” he says, without a hint of self-parody. “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”
But before you start celebrating the idea that Facebook has seen the light and are planning to stop exploiting your private data for corporate profits, it is worth looking at the detail of what he is actually announcing.
The main takeaway from his blogpost was the announcement that WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger are for the chop. Facebook is planning to integrate all three services into a single messenger service.
This proposal had been suggested before, but now, Zuckerberg claims, this new messenger service will be built with privacy at the forefront. He claims the new service is likely to include things like end-to-end encryption and ephemerality (the automatic deletion of messages after a certain period of time).
The difference between how Facebook and everybody else defines privacy
It all sounds good on paper, although fans of WhatsApp from its pre-Facebook era may wonder why their favourite messaging app needs to be done away with to deliver such a service.
But the main problem is that Zuckerberg just no longer holds any credibility on the issue of user privacy. His company has a long track record of undermining user privacy in the name of profits and observers are hugely sceptical about whether this latest announcement will be any more than PR exercise.
The problem is that Facebook thinks about user privacy a little differently to the rest of us. Most privacy advocates these days are pushing for user control of their online data. That means companies like Facebook providing user-friendly tools that allow customers to decide how their data is used for themselves.
Facebook, inevitably, doesn’t share this vision. For them, privacy is about limiting how much user data is available to the general public, to governments, but, crucially, not how much is available to Facebook themselves.
As Jonathan Albright, the director of the digital forensics initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, told the Guardian, he fears this new service could even make Facebook’s record on privacy even worse.
“Privacy is really about the citizens’ right to control what is shared and know the contexts in how it can be accessed,” he said. “Nothing has changed in terms of that control. Access to users’ data is still dictated by Facebook. And now the terms of service will expand to all of Facebook’s subordinate services and apps.”
Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, was even more sceptical. On Twitter, he claimed that Zuckerberg’s announcement was little more a strategic move to try and protect the company from forthcoming regulation.
He observed that “While positioned as a privacy-friendly play, its timing suggests a competition play to head off any potential regulatory efforts to limit data sharing across services.”
Don’t buy Facebook’s privacy speel just yet
Zuckerberg admits in his blog post that Facebook “don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services”. An understatement if ever we’ve heard one. But he does claim that “we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.”
It remains to be seen if Facebook’s new messenger service will be the privacy-friendly platform that there is a huge public demand for, or whether it will be as riddled with holes as most of Facebook’s other services.
Facebook’s market dominance means most people will hope that Zuckerberg has finally seen the light. And there was one other thing in his statement that gave cause for optimism.
He committed Facebook to not storing user data in countries with poor human rights records. “Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, or that we won’t be able to enter others anytime soon,” he wrote, before adding, “That’s a trade-off we’re willing to make.”
This would appear to rule out Facebook making any compromises in order to gain access to the market in Communist China, something they have long aspired to. This would also set Facebook aside from the like Google who is reportedly still developing a censored search engine for China.
Google has been pilloried across the world for that project. Maybe they also provided an opportunity for Facebook to finally start cultivating a privacy-friendly reputation.