Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook to explain his new vision for the social platform and the Internet overall. He opens:
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.
According to Zuckerberg, with privacy comes the freedom to be yourself, and Facebook wants its users to feel comfortable and free at all times. Zuckerberg explains that private messaging, temporary "stories," and communication among small groups are the future; these are the spaces where users do feel most comfortable. Facebook wants to capitalize on the opportunity to give everyone a safer place to have these private conversations:
People are more cautious of having a permanent record of what they've shared...But now, with all the ways people also want to interact privately, there's also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that's focused on privacy first.
Zuckerberg acknowledges that Facebook has not built a reputation of building privacy protective services, but that the company is confident in its ability to evolve. Facebook's new vision focuses on six areas: providing a space for private interactions, encryption to secure private conversations, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability between apps, and secure data storage.
Although Zuckerberg's post seems filled with respectable goals, some worry how realistic actual implementation will be. As the Wall Street Journal's Jeff Horwitz points out, Facebook is a platform built on sharing–photos, opinions, status updates, and of course, data. It is this inclination to publicly reveal information that has made Facebook its money. Horwitz writes:
The company currently makes 98% of its revenue through advertising. By contrast, WhatsApp— which Facebook bought for $19 billion in 2014 and is hugely popular around the world—doesn’t generate significant revenue.
In a world where Facebook is focused on the private "living room" setting rather than the public town square, as Zuckerberg himself puts it, the company will have to figure out how to generate revenue from private, encrypted messages. If you're scratching your head as to how Facebook could pull this off without making the data-sharing problem worse, you're not alone.
Some critics even take Zuckerberg's new vision as insincere. Horwitz looked to Ashkan Soltani, former chief technology officer at the Federal Trade Commission, for insight:
“They’re very good at knowing how to leverage privacy for competitive needs,” he said of Facebook, arguing that interoperability between Facebook’s three platforms would only entrench the company’s dominance in messaging and make future antitrust remedies harder to pursue.
Critics agree this announcement from Facebook is nothing more than a business opportunity. In addition to end-to-end encryption, Facebook wants to roll out new tools for payments and commerce. It's clear that its desire is to be a one-stop shop for all manner of communication. The Verge's Casey Newton expands on Facebook's move to unify back-end technology:
News of that move spurred criticism that it represented one more massive data-collection play from Facebook, which once promised European regulators that it would keep WhatsApp user data separate from its other services. Zuckerberg is now using the promise of encryption to sweeten the deal — and attempt to reverse years of reputational damage by proclaiming a near-religious belief in the power of privacy.
Newton also notes Facebook has a history of promoting privacy, but has failed to deliver:
Facebook has the worst reputation on privacy of any major tech company, and a 3,200-word blog post doesn’t do much by itself to dig the company out.
Facebook is a business; it should be looking for business opportunities. If an opportunity for the company means more privacy and security for its users, then all the more reason to explore it. Facebook is merging its own needs with its users, and is acting responsibly in doing so.
The Verge even acknowledges that Facebook is planning to make some sacrifices in the name of pursuing privacy:
Still, Facebook has at least gone on record saying that its future will emphasize privacy in concrete ways — and that it is prepared to be blocked in many countries as a result. As more governments warm to the idea of real-time surveillance of their citizens using Facebook’s tools, it would mark a welcome shift.
Zuckerberg admits in his post this shift will take time and that he doesn't have all the answers yet. Facebook should be commended for making a public vision statement. The more this happens, the more accountable Facebook becomes, which only benefits its users.