The latest development in the contentious relationship between data privacy and Facebook comes from a statement issued by Mark Zuckerberg on March 7th. Titled “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking,” the statement outlines – in so many words – how Facebook will frontline the efforts to move social media into a privacy-centric digital arena.
What is this new vision for data privacy that Zuckerberg has declared? How does he propose to see this plan in action? And how will Facebook’s new direction affect business owners?
1. A Summary of the New Vision for Facebook Privacy
Zuckerberg wants to move Facebook from a “town square” to a “living room.”
I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.
He acknowledges the social media giant’s reputation for poor data protection, and indicates a desire to turn that image on its head. Through private interactions, cross-platform collaboration, data impermanence, and increased security, Zuckerberg sees a future in which people feel safe putting their private information in the hands of Facebook.
First and foremost, he details a fundamental shift in Facebook’s purpose toward messaging. He regularly references WhatsApp, and expresses an intention to replicate that platform as a starting point for the new Facebook. This future incarnation of Zuckerberg’s creation will, by his own estimate, have encrypted private messaging at its core, with the other features of the platform built out from there.
Zuckerberg says the envisioned future platform will be built on the following principles:
- Private interactions
- Reducing permanence
- Secure data storage
He dedicates a few paragraphs to explaining each of these principles and how they play into his envisioned future for Facebook. Even so, these concepts are never fully developed in his statement, keeping his vision for a new Facebook strikingly out of focus.
2. What Zuckerberg’s Statement Doesn’t Say
While there’s plenty to digest after reading Zuckerberg’s announcement, there was still so much left unsaid. Questions have been raised left and right about this bombshell statement, but here are just a few of the biggest ones we’re asking after reading about the future of Facebook privacy:
How will Facebook make money?
It’s no secret that Facebook makes money through ads. In 2017, 89% of Facebook’s 40 billion in revenue reportedly came from advertisements. More specifically – that money comes from targeted advertising.
Facebook allows businesses and advertising professionals to tailor ads posted on the platform to specific audiences based on data collected through Facebook. The cost of these ads varies based on the specificity of the targeting – from gender to hobbies to political affiliations.
This is all possible because Facebook operates, in Zuckerberg’s own words, as a town square. It’s a relatively public space with fliers littering the walls, advertising everything under the sun. If the platform transforms into a living room, the individual then decides who – and what – is allowed entry.
Both gathering the information that makes highly-tailored ad targeting possible, and distributing those ads to the right people will be severely hindered under the new system that Zuckerberg outlines.
With 89% of revenue down the drain, how exactly will Facebook make money?
Will Facebook still be accessible on the web?
Alex Stamos, former CSO of Facebook, points out that encrypting messages through a browser is currently impossible. This means Facebook – in the privacy-centric iteration that Zuckerberg outlines – either wouldn’t be accessible from the web, or wouldn’t uphold the same privacy standards if accessed through the web.
What is “interoperability”?
As a buzzword, it’s great. As a concept, it’s murky at best.
Touted as one of the new vision’s guiding principles, one would expect interoperability to play a significant role in the plan. It has an air of importance – with the word itself making seven appearances in Zuckerberg’s statement – yet maintains a veil of ambiguity.
Zuckerberg defines it as a means of collaborating and communicating across multiple platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and SMS messaging. He writes:
People should be able to use any of our apps to reach their friends, and they should be able to communicate across networks easily and securely.
While Zuckerberg goes on to give an example of a user finding a vendor on one app (like Facebook) and using another app (like WhatsApp) as a preferred method of communicating with that vendor, the concept remains hazy.
How would multiple apps link up? Doesn’t this put data privacy even further at risk, rather than protecting it? Is interoperability actually a method of furthering the Facebook data monopoly?
After reading Zuckerberg’s 518 words on interoperability, we wound up with more questions than answers.
What about the dark side of end-to-end encryption?
In his explanation of encryption and safety, Zuckerberg outlines the importance of keeping data private through end-to-end encryption – a method that ensures only those involved in a messaging conversation have access to that conversation (even the platform through which the conversation takes place cannot access the details of an encrypted chat).
However, he interrupts his own praise of encryption to point out the negative side effects:
When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion. We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can…we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.
While he promotes encryption as a means of ensuring the safety and privacy of user data, Zuckerberg notes the tradeoff between allowing users to operate behind closed doors and having power – as a platform – to mitigate bad behavior and illegal activity.
Although he acknowledges this tradeoff, he doesn’t expand upon what, if anything, they intend to do about it. There’s a feeling while reading this that there’s a message left between the lines here.
Is Zuckerberg trying to preemptively clear Facebook’s name from being implicated in criminal activity transpiring over the platform? Or is he trying to lay groundwork for a final result of the new platform that doesn’t see interactions as private as he once declared they would be?
Is this just WhatsApp 2.0?
Throughout the statement, Zuckerberg references WhatsApp as the poster child of privacy-centric messaging services. What he fails to mention is how exactly the new-and-improved Facebook would differ from what WhatsApp currently is.
WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted private messaging service.
WhatsApp is a platform built on the idea of intimate living-room style chats rather than town-square style feeds.
WhatsApp is everything Zuckerberg boasts as the solution to Facebook’s privacy issues.
So what does that make Facebook?
3. How Will Facebook’s Future Affect Businesses?
If the new vision for Facebook does come to fruition, it will no doubt affect millions of individuals. Not only will users of the platform see drastic shifts in how they use the service, but businesses, too, will be facing changes.
The death of ad targeting
Once again, we turn our attention to the issue of targeted ads.
Not only will Facebook lose its biggest means of revenue-generation, but businesses will lose a huge opportunity for reaching audiences.
Along with Google, Facebook dominates the digital ad space. If the platform no longer operates as it currently does – both in terms of data collection and ad display – most businesses will lose either their biggest or second biggest means of advertising.
Feed marketing – a figment of the past
Targeted advertising isn’t the only marketing strategy that could suffer from Facebook changes as drastic as what Zuckerberg has outlined.
Small businesses, in particular, rely on non-paid advertising through Facebook feeds. For example, if you own a local business and invite people in the area to like your page, you can then post promotions, updates, special hours, and deals on Facebook for all your followers to see.
There’s a reason this form of marketing doesn’t work on WhatsApp. It is based on a user coming across your product or service by scrolling through their feed. With a messaging-first platform, consumers won’t stumble upon posts from businesses whose pages they’ve liked or establishments they’ve checked into once.
Cutting the feed means cutting another opportunity for businesses to find new customers and keep old ones coming back.
A possible win for privacy
Of the effects these Facebook changes may have on businesses, not all of them are bad. In fact, there could be one huge benefit – enhanced privacy.
If you own an online business, you’re not only responsible for the data collected on your own site, but also the data practices of other sites or services operating through your domain. For many, this includes Facebook.
For example, say you run a site that uses Facebook widgets, such as a “Like,” “Share,” or “Follow Us” icon that connects users to Facebook via your site. This inherently connects your website to Facebook – and consequently, to Facebook’s data collection practices.
Since businesses that link their websites to Facebook in any way, shape, or form are liable for data breaches and abuses carried out by or affecting Facebook, it benefits the business community to have Facebook taking data privacy seriously.
To learn more about the legal precautions you should take if your site is affiliated with Facebook, check out our guide to required legal policies for Facebook.
Experts and internet users alike can spend hours unpacking “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking.” But of all the questions that have been raised in response to this statement, there’s only one that truly matters at the moment:
Does Zuckerberg mean what he says?
As this was released at a contentious time for Facebook – with a growing pile of data privacy violations stacking up at Zuckerberg’s door – how much of it was just a means of quelling the outrage?
To that question, we may not get an answer anytime soon. But what we can say with certainty is that if the new Facebook – the Facebook portrayed in Zuckerberg’s vision – is coming down the pipeline, the digital world will be forever changed.