In a long manifesto about Facebook’s future, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company is willing to be banned in countries that object to its new focus on privacy, specifically the emphasis on secure data storage. That might sink any chance of Facebook operating in China, a huge market it’s been flirting with entering for years. But it also might let Facebook claim some moral high ground over one of its competitors: Apple.
Zuckerberg described a vision for Facebook that’s based on secure, encrypted, and ephemeral messaging — and one part of that vision is data storage. “I believe one of the most important decisions we’ll make is where we’ll build data centers and store people’s sensitive data,” he wrote. But he acknowledged that this might mean staying out of certain countries.
There’s an important difference between providing a service in a country and storing people’s data there. As we build our infrastructure around the world, we’ve chosen not to build data centers in countries that have a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression. If we build data centers and store sensitive data in these countries, rather than just caching non-sensitive data, it could make it easier for those governments to take people’s information.
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.
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. I think it’s important for the future of the internet and privacy that our industry continues to hold firm against storing people’s data in places where it won’t be secure.
Facebook has tangled with plenty of governments over privacy, but this whole section applies most directly to China, with which Facebook has an ambivalent relationship. Chinese internet censors blocked Facebook in 2009, and since then, Zuckerberg has made several attempts to win over the country’s leadership. A 2016 report said Facebook was testing a tool that could let a local Chinese partner monitor and manipulate which posts appeared in users’ feeds, making Facebook palatable to censors. Last year, it very briefly won the right to open a startup incubator in China, but permission was withdrawn after one day.
Since 2017, Chinese law has required online services to store user data within its borders. Several overseas tech companies formed partnerships with local businesses, including Apple, which raised privacy concerns by migrating data to servers controlled by the state-run China Telecom last year. (Apple has said it’s still maintaining strong user privacy.) Google is facing its own firestorm over the prospect of a censored Chinese search app, although no such app has been released and the company does not maintain servers in China.
Facebook seems to be taking a harder line. If Zuckerberg holds to this promise, he’s effectively locking Facebook out of the Chinese market for the foreseeable future. And he’s implying that any company dealing with “places where [data] won’t be secure” is endangering the future of privacy.
Zuckerberg isn’t calling Apple out by name here, but he’s certainly making a dig at parts of the industry that aren’t “holding firm” — and Apple is one of the companies that’s holding the most personal user data in questionable locations, given the popularity of the iPhone in China.
Zuckerberg is also pushing back against Apple’s repeated shaming of Facebook for violating user privacy. The company took a very public swipe at Facebook earlier this year, when it responded to news of Facebook tracking teens by locking it out of iOS’s internal app distribution system.
CEO Tim Cook previously criticized Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and more generally, its ad-focused business model. “We could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer — if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that,” he said in a 2018 interview. But with this letter, Facebook can at least argue that it’s keeping some customers’ data safer than Apple might.