Facebook pivots to privacy, but is it sincere?

The world got a preview of what the future might look like for Facebook in an essay CEO Mark Zuckerberg published in March. In it, he explained his vision was of a network of private—even encrypted—Facebook groups, as well as a private Messenger app, and other features. “I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” he said. This week, journalists got a little more detail on how this future will take shape at the company’s F8 developer conference. But even the giant screens shouting, “The future is private” couldn’t hide the fact that this is a pretty fundamental shift in the way Facebook has operated so far. It is, in fact, a complete reversal.

The contrast between what Zuckerberg is saying now vs. what he was saying a decade ago was so dramatic that long-time Facebook followers couldn’t help but call attention to it. Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Antisocial Media,” pointed out that in 2010, the Facebook CEO said “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose noted that in 2010, Zuckerberg said the age of privacy was essentially over for good, and that if he had to start Facebook all over again, he would have made all user information public by default instead of private.

Another Times tech writer, Mike Isaac, said it was jarring to watch multiple Facebook executives take the stage and talk about privacy and how that was the main goal of the company, after “years of espousing the opposite at every public opportunity.” So what has changed? In interviews and his F8 address, Zuckerberg never really addressed the why, except to say it’s the way the world is evolving. As Casey Newton of The Verge pointed out in his newsletter, it’s tempting to think of Zuckerberg as dictating where the market goes, since Facebook is a globe-spanning colossus with hundreds of billions in revenue. But in reality, the company also has to follow users, which is why Instagram has copied virtually every feature Snapchat has invented. If private and “ephemeral” stories is what people want, then Facebook has to give it to them.

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If the world is turning more towards private and encrypted groups and messaging, the past few years of privacy violations—many of them involving Facebook—have probably contributed. If anyone was happy with the public nature of their data before, reading about Cambridge Analytica leaking their personal information to shadowy companies so they could create psychographic profiles and try to swing the US election is enough to put anyone off. Not to mention countless examples of massive data leaks, password and contact book irregularities, and the icing on the cake: a potential $5 billion fine from the FTC for breaching a “consent decree” the company agreed to in 2011, in which it admitted that it changed people’s privacy settings, in some cases without telling them.

Facebook being what it is—a giant, publicly traded commercial organization—there’s another layer to the changes Zuckerberg announced in his essay, as Vaidhyanathan also pointed out. Namely, that they involve merging the back ends of Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Ostensibly, this is being done to ensure that they are all private and encrypted, but it also means that Facebook can combine the data it already has from all three massive networks to create even more robust personality profiles on its users, which it can then use for advertising purposes, even if it can’t see the text of individual encrypted messages. Privacy pivot or not, Facebook always looks out for number one.

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Here’s more on Facebook and privacy:

  • Broken: Wired magazine writer Issie Lapowsky said that the F8 launch was all about privacy, but that a lot of the changes felt to her like “slapping a fresh coat of paint on a building with rot in the foundation.” Facebook’s CEO once said the company would move fast and break things, but now it is “trying to fix the things it broke,” she wrote.
  • Redesign: In addition to the privacy features, Facebook also announced a redesign of its site and apps, which puts groups that a user belongs to front and center. It also puts the main News Feed, and the news stories that are shared, further down the page. Whether that will affect traffic to news sites remains to be seen.
  • Predator: For Axios, veteran tech writer Scott Rosenberg wrote that when Facebook moved away from privacy a decade ago, “it planted a field of landmines that started exploding” over the last two years. The technology scaled, but the social system didn’t, Rosenberg says, and Facebook “changed from a protector of privacy into a predator.”
  • Tracking: The future may be private, but Facebook didn’t say anything about turning off the geolocation feature that tracks you wherever you go, even if you aren’t using the app. And the company also launched something called “Secret Crush,” which asks you to identify people in your network you might want to date.

 

Other notable stories:

  • Magazine giant Conde Nast says the future is video, according to a promotional event put on by the company. The publisher says it has commissioned more than 175 shows from all of its titles, including GQ and Vanity Fair. In one, legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour responds to questions from readers. The company’s chief revenue officer said “We’re the new Thursday night, and we’re always on.”
  • The publication of an anti-Semitic cartoon in the international edition of The New York Times continues to be a source of tension at the newspaper, says CNN. In interviews, more than a dozen Times staffers “described a short-staffed international publication; an opinion section prone to self-inflicted wounds; and an ongoing debate about the newspaper’s biases and blind spots.”
  • Media companies in New Zealand have agreed to abide by certain standards in their coverage of the trial of the Christchurch shooter. The heads of five major news entities have agreed not to quote from the killer’s written essays justifying his acts, and they have promised not to show white supremacist imagery.
  • Former FBI director James Comey writes in an opinion piece for The New York Times that working for Donald Trump is difficult because “people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive [because] Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites. It starts with your sitting silent while he lies, both in public and private, making you complicit by your silence.”
  • Roxane Gay has started a new magazine on Medium, which has been rolling out a slate of new magazines as part of a relaunch of its services. Gay says the site, which is named after her, will “embrace not only diverse writers but diverse voices and aesthetics” and that writers for the site “will be supported throughout the publication process [and] won’t be expected to cannibalize themselves for clicks.”
  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says in her latest column for the paper that because of the sheer volume and breadth of Donald Trump’s lies, simply fact-checking the president is no longer enough. One thing the media needs to do, she says, is to stop using euphemisms for lying, and another is to challenge politicians directly when they repeatedly lie about important topics.
  • Uganda’s telecommunications regulator has ordered that almost 40 senior news producers and program directors at six TV stations and seven radio stations in the country be suspended immediately for reporting on protests in Uganda. The regulator said that it has “observed misrepresentations of information, views, facts and events in a manner likely to mislead or cause alarm to the public.”
  • Anya Schiffrin writes for CJR about the South African news site Daily Maverick, one of the new media companies she covered in a recent report sponsored by Columbia University called “Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South.” Despite widespread acclaim for its reporting, she says, Daily Maverick is still losing money because it hasn’t been able to attract enough subscribers.
  • Alternative magazine The Improper Bostonian is closing its doors for good. The family that owns the 28-year-old publication said it has been losing money for years, despite reductions in costs, and they didn’t want to make the cuts necessary to try to survive, and weren’t interested in running a digital-only enterprise.
  • NBC News chairman Andy Lack has a side job helping support a Mississippi-based online news site called Mississippi Today, according to Associated Press. Lack, whose great-grandfather is from Mississippi, has sunk about $1 million into the site in the past three years. It also receives funding from former Netscape Communications chairman James Barksdale, a Mississippi native.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.