Zuckerberg essay on Facebook's future omitted clarity about ad-driven data collection

07 March 2019 00:00 by Mike Swift

Mark Zuckerberg spun 3,166 eloquent words in a blog post describing a dramatic departure for Facebook — a transformation of the social network from the “digital equivalent of a town square” to “the digital equivalent of the living room.”

“As I think about the future of the Internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms,” the Facebook founder and CEO wrote yesterday. “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”

But what might be most remarkable was what Zuckerberg’s blog post didn’t say about the future of its business, a business that Zuckerberg summed up in four memorable words during Congressional testimony in April: “We sell ads, Senator.”

Facebook’s ads are so valuable — the firm booked $55.8 billion in revenue in 2018, over 98 percent of it from advertising — because of the vast trove of personal data the social network collects about its 2.3 billion users. It's unclear whether the company will ever be able to fully integrate the personal data it holds from its popular online products, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.

Zuckerberg’s earnest tone about his “privacy-focused vision” prompted some eye-rolling in Silicon Valley — not surprising given the company’s many privacy stumbles in the past, most recently the Cambridge Analytica leak. But Facebook’s commitment to privacy, adding features such as end-to-end encryption of data, are real, he vowed.

“I understand that many people don't think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don't currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we've historically focused on tools for more open sharing,” the Facebook chief acknowledged.

Facebook’s plan is to build on the end-to-end encryption of WhatsApp, with a “focus on the most fundamental and private use case — messaging — make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.”

And Facebook communications will become more ephemeral, protecting privacy by “reducing permanence,” automatically removing posted content and data about that content rather than storing it forever. That would be a significant departure for Facebook.

But Zuckerberg focused almost exclusively on the elements of Facebook that users can see and control: settings that tighten or broaden the circle of people who can see their activity on the network. He said nothing about the company’s vast capability to track users’ activity on the social network, as well as on other websites and apps.

Only Wednesday, UK-based activist group Privacy International reported that seven Android apps, including job-search app Indeed and language-learning app Duolingo, continue to automatically pass data to Facebook without their users' consent.

Zuckerberg mentioned the word “advertising” only twice, and only alluded indirectly to worries about the highly detailed tracking Facebook does. “Some people worry that our services could access their messages and use them for advertising or in other ways they don't expect,” Zuckerberg wrote, 18 paragraphs deep in his essay.

Investors weren’t spooked about the possibility that Facebook is about to surrender its advertising golden goose. The company’s stock was up about 0.7 percent during Wednesday’s trading, and dropped 0.3 percent in after-hours trading.

The conspicuous absence of any detail about how the changes might affect Facebook’s data-fueled advertising left some critics to wonder out loud whether the changes are a pre-emptive move to “scramble” data from Facebook’s products before antitrust regulators can act to break up the company.

Facebook's critics — and regulators in the US, Europe and elsewhere — are acutely aware of the persistent camera that has always recorded and never forgotten everything that users do in the “digital equivalent of a town square.” If Zuckerberg is to have much credibility that his company is truly pursuing a “privacy-focused vision,” he will need to spell out in detail whether that camera will still be rolling in the “the digital equivalent of the living room.”

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