Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published his latest manifesto: a public memo titled “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking.” There’s growing demand for “privacy-focused communications,” he wrote. So while classic Facebook isn’t going away, he sees an opportunity to build a simpler platform “focused on privacy first.” What follows is masterfully subtle misdirection.
“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform,” he writes, “because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.”
The impression is a CEO forthrightly owning a flaw. On reflection, however, one realizes that Facebook’s reputation is merely how others perceive it. Zuckerberg writes as though how Facebook is seen is the crux of the matter, rather than how it is. A more forthright CEO would acknowledge that skepticism of Facebook is rooted in its actions. The company repeatedly compromised user privacy to advance its interests.
Those transgressions are what rendered it untrustworthy.
Here’s a brief history by Nick Bilton, who has covered the company for most of its existence:
Back at Harvard, when Zuckerberg was first building what would become Facebook, he expressed amazement that so many “dumb fucks” would trust him with their e-mail addresses, photos, and personal information. (“If you ever need info about anyone at Harvard,” he wrote a friend in a leaked exchanged, “just ask.”) The deceptions continued as Facebook grew into a multi-billion dollar company. In 2011, Zuckerberg settled Federal Trade Commission charges that Facebook misled consumers by telling them they could keep their data private, and then repeatedly violating that promise. More recently, The New York Times revealed how Facebook leadership, including Zuckerberg and C.O.O Sheryl Sandberg, downplayed the extent to which Russian operatives and Cambridge Analytica abused its platform to influence the 2016 election, and then fought a public-relations war to obscure the scandals.
The bad reputation, then, is well deserved. What’s more, Facebook’s perverse incentive to impinge on the privacy of its users will persist so long as the company derives the bulk of its profits from selling its ability to target ads with unusual precision. A privacy-focused platform that inspires confidence wouldn’t be run by a corporate parent that stores detailed data on its users to sell ads.