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Strange bedfellows: Facebook and Privacy

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has outlined the company’s ‘vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.’ While Facebook continues to be rapped by global regulators, data breaches, bugs and overall criticism across the world – a factor that does not change its increasing user base at all – Facebook’s approach to now build a privacy focused platform is a defensive move.

We will explain why:

At this stage, this announcement sounds like a good move. Maybe Facebook’s users, global regulators and seemingly anyone who knows a bit about Facebook, technology, or even privacy, could be rejoicing that the company is finally doing something. But. Let’s not forget that it has taken a LOT of data scandals, deaths and violence (India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, for example), breaches and a complete disregard for user information and privacy for Zuckerberg and/or his company’s lawyers to come to this point where they think about embedding privacy and non-permanence into their products.

But is it genius?

Let’s see how Zuckerberg is making a case for himself verbatim

  • “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”
  • “Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication…. And we all expect to be able to do things like payments privately and securely.”
  • “… 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.

“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…including in private messaging and stories.”

Zuckerberg goes on to add that in the future, people will shift to private, encrypted services where what “they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever.” Something like WhatsApp.

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Stranger than fiction?

The principles behind building a “privacy-focused platform”. Note that all points are verbatim except notes in brackets, which are ours.

  • Private interactions. People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share.
  • Encryption. People’s private communications should be secure. (and end to end encrypted)
  • Reducing Permanence. People should be comfortable being themselves, and should not have to worry about what they share coming back to hurt them later. So we won’t keep messages or stories around for longer than necessary to deliver the service or longer than people want them.
    Note: Zuckerberg does not state what “longer than necessary” is. Who defines it? Is it the same for all kinds of content?)
  • “For example, messages could be deleted after a month or a year by default. This would reduce the risk of your messages resurfacing and embarrassing you later. Of course you’d have the ability to change the timeframe or turn off auto-deletion for your threads if you wanted. And we could also provide an option for you to set individual messages to expire after a few seconds or minutes if you wanted.”
    Note: Facebook Messenger’s Stories and WhatsApp’s Status messages are Snapchat-like disappearing picture and video content with audio which expires after 24 hours. However, on Facebook, users have the ability to edit and delete the posts, the content of the post, and who it is shared with.)
  • “It also makes sense to limit the amount of time we store messaging metadata. We use this data to run our spam and safety systems, but we don’t always need to keep it around for a long time. An important part of the solution is to collect less personal data in the first place, which is the way WhatsApp was built from the outset.”
    Note: Zuckerberg does not go into details of the metadata storage, but we understand that these are early days and that the company will still be working around it. )
  • Safety. People should expect that we will do everything we can to keep them safe on our services within the limits of what’s possible in an encrypted service.
    Note: We can see where this is coming from.)
  • Interoperability. 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.
    Note: This is quite interesting. So far, we’ve only had interoperability in ecosystem providers or a service provider, and that was restricted to the same service, not a family of services. It would be interesting to see what this looks like.)
  • “There are privacy and security advantages to interoperability. … With interoperability, you’d be able to use WhatsApp to receive messages sent to your Facebook account without sharing your phone number — and the buyer wouldn’t have to worry about whether you prefer to be messaged on one network or the other.”
  • Secure data storage. People should expect that we won’t store sensitive data in countries with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression in order to protect data from being improperly accessed.
    Note: This makes Facebook the judge of these things, just saying. It would be useful to have transparency here.)
  • “Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, or that we won’t be able to enter others anytime soon. That’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make. We do not believe storing people’s data in some countries is a secure enough foundation to build such important internet infrastructure on…. But storing data in more countries also establishes a precedent that emboldens other governments to seek greater access to their citizen’s data and therefore weakens privacy and security protections for people around the world.”

Zuckerberg promises to do this “as openly and collaboratively” as it can, and consult with ‘safety experts, law enforcement and governments on the best ways to implement safety measures.’

As for strange bedfellows, Facebook’s track record speaks louder than its claims and promises. Maybe we will see the emergence of a new way of communicating over the next few years. No harm in being hopeful, is there?

Written By

I'm a MediaNama alumna from 2015-16 (remember TinyOwl?) now back to cover e-services like food and grocery delivery, app based transport and policies, platforms and media in India.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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