Don’t Trust Facebook’s New Privacy Play

Mark Zuckerberg has ambitions to control a platform where billions conduct their private, encrypted conversations.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

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.

And even if Facebook were capable of safeguarding user data, I’d still prefer a privacy-focused platform run by a different company—to hedge against concentrations of power. Wouldn’t it be best if different people ran the most dominant platform for connecting semipublicly and the most dominant platform for connecting privately?

Instead,“Facebook hopes to draw those who use competing services like Telegram, Signal, Skype, Google’s Hangouts (formerly known as GChat), Apple’s IMessage, or classic SMS to Facebook’s various and soon-to-be-united messaging services,” Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in The Guardian. “Crushing all those apps, along with email and old-fashioned phone calls, would be a major step toward becoming the operating system of our lives,” a Silicon Valley WeChat.

It might be most convenient if we all stored our data with Facebook—Facebook classic and Facebook private— by communicating there almost exclusively.

But I’d prefer a future in which lots of digital platforms vie in an intensely competitive market for privacy-focused social networking. No one is trustworthy enough to dominate that market––least of all a CEO who once said, “Doing a privacy change for 350 million users is really––it’s not the type of thing that a lot of companies would do. But I think we view that is a really important thing to always kind of keep a beginner’s mind and think, ‘What would we do if we were starting about the company now, and the site now?’ We decided that these would be the social norms now, and we just went for it.”

As a society, Zuckerberg says near the end of his memo, “we have an opportunity to set out where we stand, to decide how we value private communications, and who gets to decide how long and where data should be stored.”

The question of who gets to decide is indeed vital. We should not let it be Facebook.