What Facebook’s pivot to a privacy-led future really means

1 May 2019

Mark Zuckerberg at F8 2019. Image: Facebook

Privacy needs to be baked in across all Facebook products if Zuckerberg truly wants the company to leave its troubled history behind.

“I believe the future is private,” intoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s annual developer shindig, F8. It would damn well need to be after the past year or more of seemingly never-ending privacy debacles.

A cynic would say the legal trouble and upcoming fines under GDPR and the FTC will be just a drop in the ocean for the advertising behemoth’s vast coffers, but that’s not the kind of legacy Zuckerberg wants to leave behind. And he wants to leave a legacy.

‘The future is private. This is the next chapter for our services’

At F8 he took what seems to be a few solid first steps to fashion Facebook into a private messaging and e-commerce company.

Privacy by design

Zuckerberg unveiled a fresh design, ditching the blue bar at the top, de-emphasising its news feed and giving greater prominence to the Instagram-style Stories feature.

“I get that a lot of people think we’re not serious about this,” Zuckerberg said. “I know we don’t have the strongest reputation on privacy, to put it lightly.”

But Zuckerberg is promising change, beginning with a more privacy-focused service with “simple, intimate spaces where you have complete confidence that what you say and do is private, and clear control over who youre communicating with”. He added: “This is about building the kind of future that we want to live in.”

But it remains to be seen if Zuckerberg’s and his legions of partners’ take on privacy matches the expectations of almost a third of the world’s population – about 2.38bn people – who use the Facebook family of platforms.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the various privacy debacles that have stalked the company right up to recent weeks were as much a shock to its system as they were to users and governments across the planet.

What’s more, some of the new features seem have a potentially creepy take on privacy that may miss the point of what privacy actually is. For example, Facebook is rolling out a new Secret Crush option for Facebook Dating, a feature that lets users select up to nine friends for Tinder-like matching. It’s hard to know if this will turn out to be brilliant, invasive or will end up being cited as circumstantial evidence in countless future court cases. Who knows?

The company is also putting in place features that encourage users to interact with their close social circles as well as with businesses.

“As the world gets bigger and more connected, we need that sense of intimacy more than ever. That’s why I believe that the future is private. This is the next chapter for our services,” Zuckerberg told his F8 faithful.

It is hard to turn around a battleship, let alone a multibillion-dollar-per-quarter digital cruiser such as Facebook. But, after one horrible year and the resources he has at his disposal, if Zuckerberg has the courage of his convictions and does what he says, he may get that legacy he desires.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years