By 2015, Mark Zuckerberg had grown uncomfortable with his messaging history. His old instant messages had gotten him into trouble in the past — people are still
tweeting juvenile IMs from his college days
— and the 2014 Sony hack had made him more concerned about his potential exposure. And so Facebook’s CEO took a step then unavailable to any of the 2.2 billion other users of his platform: he snapped his fingers, Thanos-like, and the messages disappeared.
Some of Zuckerberg’s correspondents noticed that their old conversations had suddenly become one-sided, and eventually told TechCrunch
’s Josh Constine, who broke the story last April
. There have been plenty of Facebook data privacy scandals over the past couple of years, but none bothered me quite as much as this one. As I wrote here at the time
The good news is that Facebook knows how to build robust privacy tools when it wants to. The bad news is that it reserved such a powerful tool for the CEO, and admitted to it only under duress. That Zuckerberg deleted all of his chats, while leaving his recipients’ messages intact, says more about how he views privacy than any belated apology ever could.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Zuckerberg today announced — in a 3,200 word blog post
— that he planned to pivot the entire company toward more private messaging. In addition to end-to-end encryption, Zuckerberg wrote, he also planned to eliminate the permanence of messages like the ones he had deleted on his behalf. Instead, he said, the messages would likely delete themselves after some specified amount of time, unless a user opted out. Facebook would even look for ways to store less metadata about message content, and retain it for shorter periods.
I attempted to cover the sweep of the news in a story for The Verge
. Among the key quotes from Zuckerberg’s post is this one:
“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever,” Zuckerberg says. “This is the future I hope we will help bring about.“
How significant is all this? The first question people are asking is whether Zuckerberg means what he says, and there are plenty of doubters. (For starters: Walt Mossberg
; Om Malik
; Sam Biddle
; and Facebook investors, who hardly moved the stock price today.) John Herrman noted that Zuckerberg was against privacy before he was for it
, and wondered if the CEO ought not to have provided a bit more detail on the nature of his recent religious conversion.
Then there’s the fact that Facebook’s privacy promises have historically been broken. Anonymous login, a much ballyhooed privacy feature announced in 2014 at F8, never shipped
. And we’re all still waiting on a “clear history” button announced last May
But say you take Zuckerberg at his word. Say Facebook pivots to privacy, investing most of its energy into groups and messaging products. If that becomes true, then what else is true?
The News Feed becomes a legacy product. Since its introduction, the endless scroll of updates from your friends has been the core of Facebook — synonymous with the experience of using the app itself. Zuckerberg just told the world that he expects it to slowly fade away — not without its uses, but no longer the center of all social media. This could have implications that extend well beyond Facebook proper — to Instagram, for example, and to Twitter.
Facebook has to find a new business model. The News Feed is more than just Facebook’s core consumer product — it’s the company’s core business unit. The News Feed is, along with Google’s AdWords, the most lucrative advertising product ever built. A world in which it withers away is one in which Facebook has to first replace, than exceed the revenues it currently generates from advertising. It will be a Herculean task.
That new business model will probably be commerce. Commerce and payments all the rage inside Facebook these days. On the commerce side, Instagram is spinning up a standalone shopping app. On the payments front, David Marcus’ team is developing a cryptocurrency. In his blog post, Zuckerberg says a more private suite of Facebook services will give rise to “businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.”
Regulators will have to make a choice. Lawmakers in some countries have expressed concern about a central element of Zuckerberg’s plan, which is to unify the back-end technologies powering Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Among other things, the move makes it harder for the Federal Trade Commission to order Facebook to spin off one or both of the latter two acquisitions. The question is whether they might allow the unification to go through in exchange for more robust privacy protections and a new business model that is less reliant on personal data. (This is a stretch! All of this is a stretch!)
Facebook will be banned in large countries
. Countries including Russia and Vietnam
are increasingly demanding that tech platforms store user data locally, where it is more easily intercepted by law enforcement agencies. The pivot to privacy doesn’t square with those laws, and could have significant consequences. Zuckerberg seems resigned to this fate:
“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,” Zuckerberg writes. “That’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make. We do not believe storing people’s data in some countries is a secure enough foundation to build such important internet infrastructure on.”
Facebook will find itself increasingly at odds with law enforcement. People plan terrorism and other crimes using encrypted messaging apps, and in Facebook’s encrypted future, we can expect law enforcement agencies around the world to make great hay out of Facebook’s complicity. If I’m on Facebook’s communications team, I would actually see this as a good thing: Facebook standing up for its users in the face of pressure from, say, the FBI might help change public sentiment around who has their back, regardless of the particulars of the case. (I hasten to add that terrorism is bad and I hope that no one uses WhatsApp to plan it!)
Misinformation will become harder to track. WhatsApp is already a huge source of misinformation in countries where it is popular, most notably India and Brazil. Shifting more public conversation to encrypted private spaces will mean we have less visibility into public sentiment — and, potentially, how politics are being played by candidates and interest groups. It’s tradeoffs all the way down.
If you work at Facebook, all this would represent an extraordinary amount of change. It is not, exactly, unprecedented; one reader likened it to Microsoft’s announcement in 2002 that it would put privacy and security ahead of new feature development
, after enduring years of criticism over security failures. But it’s still likely to be quite messy.
All that said: it could have real benefits, too, especially to normal people who just want to text friends, family, and co-workers, and not have it come back to haunt them. (Or have those messages used to target ads at them, in the way Messenger currently does.) This was Snapchat’s original insight, and Facebook is still learning it all these years later.