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Facebook's pivot to privacy, reconsidered

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Programming note: It's time for The Interface to take its annual spring break trip to Austin for Sout
 
March 7 · Issue #299 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: It’s time for The Interface to take its annual spring break trip to Austin for South By Southwest! I’ll be interviewing Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, at 2:30 PM local time on Saturday; and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark on 3:30 PM Sunday. If you’re in town, RSVP here and come say hello. The Interface returns March 13th — and in the meantime, I’ll be doing some more original reporting that I can’t wait to share with you.
On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg dropped a 3,200-word blog post in which he promised to “outline our vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.” I took him seriously, and in the hours after his post was published, contemplated a Facebook that put messaging and privacy first.
But did I take Zuckerberg too seriously? That’s the charge made by Silicon Valley’s favorite morning columnist, Ben Thompson, in his newsletter today. We had a friendly chat about it on Twitter over direct message, so there are no hard feelings here. But I do want to dig into the opposing views about the Zuckerberg memo, because I’ve noticed a fascinating split today in opinions.
My view is that if you accept that Facebook’s News Feed and other feed-based products will eventually fade away, as they have already begun to do in North America, Facebook will need to transform its business completely. Rallying around privacy, encryption, and ephemeral messages — while buying time to build out new businesses around commerce and payments — seems to be as good an idea as any.
Zuckerberg nods weakly to a belief in the continuing importance of the News Feed in his post. But over the past year, he also moved top News Feed talent to parts of the company that he needs to grow faster: Adam Mosseri to Instagram; designer Geoff Teehan to the blockchain division, and so on. These moves, coupled with the decline of original sharing in the News Feed in North America, lead me to believe that Zuckerberg — ever paranoid about the company’s long-term survival — feels pressure to start building lifeboats.
But in the aftermath of his post going up, Zuckerberg walked back some of his enthusiasm over this vision of a purely “privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.” He told Nick Thompson at Wired:
It’s not that Facebook and Instagram are going to be less important for what they’re doing, it’s just that people sometimes want to interact in a town square, and sometimes they want to interact in the living room, and I think that that’s the next big frontier.
As I said on Twitter, Zuckerberg wants to have his cake, and eat it too: thriving public feeds, and fast-growing private messaging apps. Thompson, in a piece titled “Facebook’s privacy cake,” takes the same metaphor and runs with it:
They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be.
He goes on:
Stop expecting companies to act against their interests. Facebook isn’t killing their core business anymore than Apple, to take a pertinent example, is willing to go to the mat to protect user data in China.
If nothing else, this view explains why Facebook’s stock has been mostly flat since the announcement. (It was down about 2 percent today.)
At the same time, I find this view to be surprisingly cynical. It takes as a given that Facebook’s CEO, in announcing a bold new vision for privacy-focused social networking, was in reality simply describing a high-level product roadmap for an adjacent business. It suggests that the post was published primarily for public-relations reasons: to signal a commitment to privacy from a company whose reputation on the subject is dire.
But assuming this is the case, Facebook has put itself in a vise. On one hand it will have its advertisers demanding ever-more intrusive tracking and targeting options, as usual; on the other, there is a large and increasingly dissatisfied user base that has now been promised that the next generation of Facebook products will be private, ephemeral, and regularly purge their data. Whole divisions of Facebook will now be working at cross purposes.
And with each new error around data privacy — there was one a few hours ago, by the way — the world will have a chance to jeer: Remember the pivot to privacy? If the company truly hoped to buy some short-term goodwill at the expense of its long-term credibility, it seems like a bad bargain.
Perhaps, with the threat of a forced breakup of Instagram and WhatsApp looming, Zuckerberg felt that his hand was forced — and that he had to justify the unification of the apps’ back-end technology with the most consumer-friendly argument he could find. But if he can’t deliver what he promised — and if data-related scandals continue at the pace of the past 12 months — the “pivot to privacy” will be remembered as an epic folly.
One reason for the confusion over Zuckerberg’s post may be that he uses “privacy” differently than most people do. As Konstantin Kakaes writes in MIT Tech Review:
By narrowly construing privacy to be almost exclusively about end-to-end encryption that would prevent a would-be eavesdropper from intercepting communications, he manages to avoid having to think about Facebook’s weaknesses and missteps. Privacy is not just about keeping secrets. It’s also about how flows of information shape us as individuals and as a society. What we say to whom and why is a function of context. Social networks change that context, and in so doing they change the nature of privacy, in ways that are both good and bad.
Russian propagandists used Facebook to sway the 2016 American election, perhaps decisively. Myanmarese military leaders used Facebook to incite an anti-Rohingya genocide. These are consequences of the ways in which Facebook has diminished privacy. They are not the result of failures of encryption.
In any case, I found that current and former employees seemed to take the news differently. Current employees, as Peter Kafka notes here, tend to endorse Thompson’s view — that this is a cake-and-eat-it-too situation. But former employees I’ve spoken to take Zuckerberg at his word that he plans to shift the company to a more message- and group-oriented future — and that it will be very, very hard. (“Everyone thinks it’s a bad idea,” one person familiar with employee sentiment told me today. “But it’s a top-down request to get it done.”)
That’s the thing about having your cake and eating it too. Very few people ever get to.

Democracy
Facebook plans to tie itself together as regulators debate tearing it apart
Facebook discovers UK 'fake news' network
Russia laws ban 'disrespect' of government and 'fake news'
YouTube Is Rolling Out A Feature That Shows Fact Checks When People Search For Sensitive Topics
Elsewhere
Car bomb fears and stolen prototypes: Inside Facebook's efforts to protect its 80,000 workers across the globe
Facebook Messenger had a vulnerability that could let hackers see who you contact
The messy details behind Facebook’s messaging plans
YouTube’s family vloggers worry about their future amid comment section crackdown
Can a judge order Elon Musk to delete his Twitter account?
Launches
Facebook outlines plans to curb anti-vax conspiracy theories
Twitter will let users be much more specific when reporting tweets with personal information
Takes
A 'privacy-focused' Facebook would kill Zuckerberg's business model
It’s time — high time — to take Fox News’s destructive role in America seriously
The India-Pakistan Conflict Was a Parade of Lies
And finally ...
Tim Cook is now Tim Apple on Twitter
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and a note explaining exactly how seriously you take Mark Zuckerberg: casey@theverge.com.
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