Critics call Facebook’s big shift to messaging a ‘cynical’ move
Mark Zuckerberg is punting 'privacy-focused communications' over public posting in a major strategy shift
Mark Zuckerberg has signalled a seismic shift in Facebook’s strategy, away from public posting and towards encrypted private messages that even the company itself cannot read.
In a 3,000-word blog post on his personal Facebook page, Zuckerberg said he expected private messaging on apps such as Messenger and WhatsApp to become “the main way people communicate on the Facebook network”.
He pledged to unify the private messaging features across all Facebook’s app into one service and to encrypt it so that it cannot be spied upon by governments or by Facebook itself. He also vowed never to store users’ “sensitive data” in countries with “weak records on human rights” – which could rule out a future return to China, a lucrative market with billions of potential users where Facebook has been banned since 2009. Focusing on private messages would be a major change in direction for Facebook, which has historically encouraged its users to share as much information with as many people as possible, and could burnish its privacy credentials after years of damaging scandals.
But critics attacked Zuckerberg’s post as a cynical reversal that ignores Facebook’s history of violating users’ privacy, intended to insulate it from the demands of European and American regulators.
“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,” Zuckerberg wrote.
“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. “But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories ... this is the future I hope we will help bring about.”
The post is a marked departure from some of Zuckerberg’s previous statements, which have tended to stress the importance of “open” communication and to elide Facebook’s own power as a global communications company.
It’s unclear what changes will eventually emerge from this vision. Zuckerberg repeatedly said that he wanted to make sure Facebook consulted with outside experts, “including law enforcement and regulators”.
If its promises were fulfilled, however, it could herald the biggest strategic shift in Facebook’s history, transforming it from a data-hoovering advertising company into something quite different.
Zuckerberg’s post confirms that Facebook is working to merge the private messaging functions of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. They would remain as separate apps, but behind the scenes they would be linked by one unified chat service.
Facebook owns all three products, but it has been repeatedly prevented by European officials from linking its existing data with data from WhatsApp, which has a longstanding reputation for privacy.
This new plan will probably draw close scrutiny from privacy and antitrust regulators, because it is unclear how Facebook could get permission for such a sweeping change from users who downloaded WhatsApp on the basis that it was separate from Facebook.
If such a change were to go forward, it could give Facebook an avalanche of new information, allowing it to link its users’ activity across all those apps and to building more detailed maps of their social connections and contacts.
Zuckerberg does not really address these concerns. Instead, he argues that joining the three services would make encrypted communication more convenient and therefore allow it to benefit more people.
“These are significant challenges ... but if we can implement this, we can give people more choice to use their preferred service to securely reach the people they want,” he says.
Everything will be encrypted
Central to Zuckerberg’s post is a pledge to encrypt all private messages on WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, making it extremely difficult for either Facebook or anyone else to read them.
This is interesting, because in the past Zuckerberg has always depicted Facebook as a decentralising force, one that reduces the power of traditional vested interests such as governments and media companies. He almost never admits that Facebook is now a powerful interest in its own right, which has grown by centralising enormous amounts of previously fragmented information.
This post was a little different. “There is a growing concern that technology may be a centralising power in the hands of governments and companies like ours,” says Zuckerberg. “Some people worry that our services could access their messages and use them for advertising or in other ways they don’t expect.”
Hence the need for encryption. “Encryption is decentralising: it limits services like ours from seeing the content flowing through them and makes it much harder for anyone else to access your information,” Zuckerberg writes.
“In the last year, I’ve spoken with dissidents who’ve told me encryption is the reason they are free, or even alive. Governments often make unlawful demands for data and, while we push back and fight these requests in court, there’s always a risk we’ll lose a case.
“This may seem extreme, but we’ve had a case where one of our employees was actually jailed for not providing access to someone’s private information even though we couldn’t access it since it was encrypted.”
Criminals and terrorists will benefit
In a passage of unusual candour, Zuckerberg admits that encryption would also benefit terrorists, child molesters and organised criminals, making it easier for them to conduct their business without being caught.
To some extent, he says, Facebook could mitigate this by working closely with governments to spot criminal activity by other means, such as by analysing the patterns of communications between different users (as it already does on WhatsApp).
But, he says, there is an “inherent trade-off” between the risks and benefits of encryption – and he believes that prioritising users’ privacy is ultimately “the right thing to do”. “Messages and calls are some of the most sensitive private conversations people have,” he writes. “In a world of increasing cyber security threats and heavy-handed government intervention in many countries, people want us to take the extra step to secure their most private data. “That seems right to me, as long as we take the time to build the appropriate safety systems that stop bad actors as much as we possibly can within the limits of an encrypted service.”
Facebook would do less content moderation
Although encryption might seem to hurt Facebook’s bottom line by limiting the data it can collect, it would actually have many benefits.
It’s not just that encrypting all messages would allow Facebook to put its money where its mouth is in terms of reassuring the public and various angry governments that it cares about its users’ privacy.
It’s also that encryption would partially exempt Facebook from its reluctant role as the world’s speech police. If its users’ messages are encrypted, it can plausibly claim to be unable to scan them for hate speech or suicidal intent.
This already happens with WhatsApp, which has been accused of causing instability and spreading fake news in India and Brazil. Facebook has implemented some anti-spam tools, but is simply unable to look closely at what people are actually saying to each other.
Disappearing messages could become standard
Over the past few years Facebook has greatly expanded its “ephemeral messaging” products. Ephemeral messaging means messages that disappear once they have been sent, usually after 24 hours – a format pioneered by Snapchat and then copied very successfully by Instagram. In his post, Zuckerberg says this philosophy could soon be expanded to “all private content”.
“One challenge in building social tools is the ‘permanence problem’,” he writes. “As we build up large collections of messages and photos over time, they can become a liability as well as an asset. For example, many people who have been on Facebook for a long time have photos from when they were younger that could be embarrassing.”
The solution, he says, could be to set all messages to disappear automatically after one month, one year, or any other timescale that users choose. Users could switch this function off if they preferred, or even set individual messages to expire after “a few seconds or minutes”.
He also suggests that Facebook itself could limit how long it stores information about how often its users message each other. This data is crucial for Facebook in building maps of users’ social lives, determining which of their contacts are close friends and which are just occasional acquaintances.
What Zuckerberg does not say is whether Facebook would keep the conclusions it draws from such data. It may be that Facebook will only delete your conversation logs after they have been incorporated into Facebook’s model of your life.
Facebook may never return to China
Zuckerberg calls on the rest of the tech industry to “hold firm” against requests by foreign governments to access its user data so that they can punish dissidents, and not to store data in countries where this might happen.
“As we build our infrastructure around the world, we’ve chosen not to build data centres in countries that have a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression,” he writes.
“Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, or that we won’t be able to enter others any time soon. That’s a trade-off we’re willing to make.”
That would probably rule out any return to China, which recently passed laws requiring user data to be stored within its borders, and might force Facebook to stop operating in countries such as Russia and Vietnam, which have similar data storage laws.
But it is probably also a coded attack on Apple, which has been criticised for storing its Chinese users’ e-mails and text messages, as well as their encryption keys, on Chinese servers accessible to the Communist government.
Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, has repeatedly sniped at Facebook by attacking companies that “stockpile” sensitive personal data through “surveillance” and then “weaponise [it] with military efficiency”. How critics reacted Zuckerberg’s post met with mixed reaction when it went live on Wednesday. Some hailed it as a welcome and overdue change in Facebook’s strategy, while others expressed scepticism about its sincerity.
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, called it “really refreshing”, saying its promises would be a victory for privacy advocates and for users in “oppressive countries”.
“This isn’t a post I expected to read, and I wish [Zuckerberg] wrote it two years ago,” he said. “Hopefully the external vision is reflected in internal moves to change product culture that informs thousands of product and engineering decisions per year. Turning a ship that large is difficult.”
But Ashkan Soltani, a former official with the US Federal Trade Commission and a frequent critic of Facebook, said it was probably a defensive move designed to head off attempts by governments to prevent it from unifying its chat apps.
“I strongly support consumer privacy when communicating online, but this move is entirely a strategic play to use privacy as a competitive advantage and further lock in Facebook as the dominant messaging platform,” he said.
– © The Daily Telegraph