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Why Facebook’s pivot to privacy could backfire

If all this is a PR stunt, it would be a very bad bargain

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Programming note: It’s time for The Interface to take its annual spring break trip to Austin for South By Southwest! I’ll be interviewing Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, at 2:30 PM local time on Saturday; and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark on 3:30 PM Sunday. If you’re in town, RSVP here and come say hello. The Interface returns March 13th — and in the meantime, I’ll be doing some more original reporting that I can’t wait to share with you.

On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg dropped a 3,200-word blog post in which he promised to “outline our vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.” I took him seriously, and in the hours after his post was published, contemplated a Facebook that put messaging and privacy first.

But did I take Zuckerberg too seriously? That’s the charge made by Silicon Valley’s favorite morning columnist, Ben Thompson, in his newsletter today. We had a friendly chat about it on Twitter over direct message, so there are no hard feelings here. But I do want to dig into the opposing views about the Zuckerberg memo, because I’ve noticed a fascinating split today in opinions.

My view is that if you accept that Facebook’s News Feed and other feed-based products will eventually fade away, as they have already begun to do in North America, Facebook will need to transform its business completely. Rallying around privacy, encryption, and ephemeral messages — while buying time to build out new businesses around commerce and payments — seems to be as good an idea as any.

Zuckerberg nods weakly to a belief in the continuing importance of the News Feed in his post. But over the past year, he also moved top News Feed talent to parts of the company that he needs to grow faster: Adam Mosseri to Instagram; designer Geoff Teehan to the blockchain division, and so on. These moves, coupled with the decline of original sharing in the News Feed in North America, lead me to believe that Zuckerberg — ever paranoid about the company’s long-term survival — feels pressure to start building lifeboats.

But in the aftermath of his post going up, Zuckerberg walked back some of his enthusiasm over this vision of a purely “privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.” He told Nick Thompson at Wired:

It’s not that Facebook and Instagram are going to be less important for what they’re doing, it’s just that people sometimes want to interact in a town square, and sometimes they want to interact in the living room, and I think that that’s the next big frontier.

As I said on Twitter, Zuckerberg wants to have his cake, and eat it too: thriving public feeds, and fast-growing private messaging apps. Thompson, in a piece titled “Facebook’s privacy cake,” takes the same metaphor and runs with it:

They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be.

He goes on:

Stop expecting companies to act against their interests. Facebook isn’t killing their core business anymore than Apple, to take a pertinent example, is willing to go to the mat to protect user data in China.

If nothing else, this view explains why Facebook’s stock has been mostly flat since the announcement. (It was down about 2 percent today.)

At the same time, I find this view to be surprisingly cynical. It takes as a given that Facebook’s CEO, in announcing a bold new vision for privacy-focused social networking, was in reality simply describing a high-level product roadmap for an adjacent business. It suggests that the post was published primarily for public-relations reasons: to signal a commitment to privacy from a company whose reputation on the subject is dire.

But assuming this is the case, Facebook has put itself in a vise. On one hand it will have its advertisers demanding ever-more intrusive tracking and targeting options, as usual; on the other, there is a large and increasingly dissatisfied user base that has now been promised that the next generation of Facebook products will be private, ephemeral, and regularly purge their data. Whole divisions of Facebook will now be working at cross purposes.

And with each new error around data privacy — there was one a few hours ago, by the way — the world will have a chance to jeer: Remember the pivot to privacy? If the company truly hoped to buy some short-term goodwill at the expense of its long-term credibility, it seems like a bad bargain.

Perhaps, with the threat of a forced breakup of Instagram and WhatsApp looming, Zuckerberg felt that his hand was forced — and that he had to justify the unification of the apps’ back-end technology with the most consumer-friendly argument he could find. But if he can’t deliver what he promised — and if data-related scandals continue at the pace of the past 12 months — the “pivot to privacy” will be remembered as an epic folly.

One reason for the confusion over Zuckerberg’s post may be that he uses “privacy” differently than most people do. As Konstantin Kakaes writes in MIT Tech Review:

By narrowly construing privacy to be almost exclusively about end-to-end encryption that would prevent a would-be eavesdropper from intercepting communications, he manages to avoid having to think about Facebook’s weaknesses and missteps. Privacy is not just about keeping secrets. It’s also about how flows of information shape us as individuals and as a society. What we say to whom and why is a function of context. Social networks change that context, and in so doing they change the nature of privacy, in ways that are both good and bad.

Russian propagandists used Facebook to sway the 2016 American election, perhaps decisively. Myanmarese military leaders used Facebook to incite an anti-Rohingya genocide. These are consequences of the ways in which Facebook has diminished privacy. They are not the result of failures of encryption.

In any case, I found that current and former employees seemed to take the news differently. Current employees, as Peter Kafka notes here, tend to endorse Thompson’s view — that this is a cake-and-eat-it-too situation. But former employees I’ve spoken to take Zuckerberg at his word that he plans to shift the company to a more message- and group-oriented future — and that it will be very, very hard. (“Everyone thinks it’s a bad idea,” one person familiar with employee sentiment told me today. “But it’s a top-down request to get it done.”)

That’s the thing about having your cake and eating it too. Very few people ever get to.

Democracy

Facebook plans to tie itself together as regulators debate tearing it apart

Makena Kelly reports that some lawmakers are taking a dim view of Facebook’s effort to consolidate its messaging apps:

“Mark Zuckerberg is taunting antitrust authorities around the world, breaking past acquisition commitments and threatening to consolidate market control,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said in a statement to The Verge. “The FTC and Department of Justice should see through this façade. Big Tech will never change its invasive and anticompetitive ways until change is forced on them.”

“Yesterday, I suggested that our antitrust enforcers should consider unwinding anticompetitive mergers, including Facebook and Instagram,” Blumenthal continued.

Facebook discovers UK ‘fake news’ network

Facebook took down an information operation today that was followed by 175,000 people and targeted at the United Kingdom. It’s not clear who was behind it:

Facebook has removed more than 130 accounts, pages and groups it says were part of a UK-based misinformation network.

The company said it was the first time it had taken down a UK-based group targeting messages at British citizens.

Russia laws ban ‘disrespect’ of government and ‘fake news’

Here’s another authoritarian leader banning dissent under the guise of restricting “fake news.”

Russia’s parliament has passed two bills outlawing “disrespect” of authorities and the spreading of what the government deems to be “fake news”.

The first ban refers to “blatant disrespect” of the state, its officials and Russian society, and repeat offenders face up to 15 days in jail.

YouTube Is Rolling Out A Feature That Shows Fact Checks When People Search For Sensitive Topics

Pranav Dixit reports that YouTube will start showing information panels when people search for topics that are “prone to misinformation,” starting in India:

Asked for an example of the kind of search that would show an information panel, the YouTube spokesperson cited the recent conflict between India and Pakistan that led to a flood of misinformation on social media platforms.

The spokesperson also provided BuzzFeed News with a screenshot of an information panel in Hindi containing a debunk for a Hindi search query for “CCTV footage of the Pulwama terror attack” that yields videos trying to pass off a bomb explosion in Syria as that of an attack on Indian paramilitary forces.

Elsewhere

Car bomb fears and stolen prototypes: Inside Facebook’s efforts to protect its 80,000 workers across the globe

Rob Price has an illuminating look at the very real security threats faced by Facebook and its tens of thousands of workers around the globe. There are many candidates for the wildest detail in this story, but the kicker is probably the wildest:

In August 2013, after Facebook’s beloved head chef died in a motorcycle crash, the company threw a blow-out party with free booze on a weekend to commemorate him. The memorial descended into chaos, with multiple fights breaking out among kitchen staff, which security staff believed were gang-related. The event culminated in one kitchen worker being beaten so badly on Facebook grounds they were hospitalised.

The assailant was subsequently blacklisted — but he continued to sneak onto campus afterwards to visit his mother who still worked there.

Facebook Messenger had a vulnerability that could let hackers see who you contact

Facebook made it one day into the pivot to privacy before a privacy vulnerability was announced. Here’s Shannon Liao:

A previously reported Facebook vulnerability was similarly found in the company’s Messenger product, according to security research group Imperva. Nearly a year ago, Imperva researchers discovered that, through Messenger, a hacker could use “any website to expose who you have been messaging with.” The bug was disclosed to Facebook in May and subsequently patched.

Hackers could target a Facebook user’s web browser and exploit iframe elements to see which friends the user had talked to and which were not in the user’s contact list. Imperva confirmed the hackers couldn’t gain any other data from the attack.

The messy details behind Facebook’s messaging plans

Mark Zuckerberg says messaging apps should be more “interoperable.” Russell Brandom digs into what that might mean in practice:

If you’re of a certain generation of techie, this all might sound a bit silly. There are lots of truly interoperable messaging standards, whether it’s SMTP (aka email) or XMPP (aka Jabber), and if you don’t like how they work, you can always start a new one. Facebook isn’t proposing anything like that. Facebook is proposing a new system that it controls, which would aim to crowd out existing open standards as well as competing services from Google, Apple, and everyone else. It’s very much a power play, and if it works, it would put Facebook at the center of one of the most important things we do with our phones.

It would also come with its own business opportunities, depending on how the system is constructed. Robust encryption would mean the company can’t read the text of messages, but if Facebook kept the metadata, it would reveal who you’re texting, which could be a powerful tool for targeted advertising and help Facebook build out its graph of who knows who. It wasn’t mentioned in Zuckerberg’s post, but Facebook is also reportedly working on a blockchain payment system that would let users send money through messaging apps, which would make the proposed system even more lucrative. And as regulators around the world start to think about splitting off WhatsApp and Instagram, bringing all three networks onto a single messaging system could be a crucial political protection.

YouTube’s family vloggers worry about their future amid comment section crackdown

People whose business is showing off their children on YouTube are worried about the ban on advertising for videos depicting minors, Julia Alexander reports.

Most people might think of YouTube’s comment section as nothing more than a haven for trolls, but for YouTubers comments are a way to communicate with viewers, Jon and Danielle told The Verge. People watch YouTube to engage with creators and other fans. But YouTube has removed comments from the majority of videos featuring minors, in an attempt to combat predatory behavior. Most affected videos belong to family vloggers like the Murrays — a popular genre of videos about living with kids.

“We built this relationship with our subscribers, you know,” Danielle told The Verge in a phone call. “We just picked up a bunch of mail from our P.O. box, gifts that people send us, cards, and all kinds of stuff … it really feels like people you know.”

Can a judge order Elon Musk to delete his Twitter account?

Elizabeth Lopatto talks with legal experts in an effort to answer the question. The answer seems to be: probably not.

“I’m doubtful the court can — or would — order Mr. Musk to stop tweeting and/or delete his Twitter account,” says former SEC commissioner Harvey Pitt, now the CEO of Kalorama Partners, in an email. “That type of order would smack of First Amendment infringement, I suspect.” Pitt says the court could order Musk to stop tweeting on behalf of Tesla, but because Musk is so closely associated with Tesla in the public’s mind, I’m not sure how that would work. This is the dude who immediately launched conspiracy theories just by changing his Twitter display name to “Elon Tusk” as a goof.

Launches

Facebook outlines plans to curb anti-vax conspiracy theories

In the wake of Pinterest removing anti-vaccine content from search, Facebook is following suit. It’s a welcome move — promoting freedom of speech while denying these zealots the right to hijack Facebook’s viral machinery. Rachel Becker reports:

The news comes three weeks after Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) sent a stern letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, criticizing Facebook and Instagram for “surfacing and recommending messages that discourage parents from vaccinating their children.” When kids don’t get vaccinated due to thoroughly debunked myths that vaccines cause diseases like autism, dangerous diseases like measles can spread. Schiff called this “a direct threat to public health.”

One major problem area is Facebook groups where fear-mongering misinformation about vaccines can bounce around in a pseudoscientific echo chamber, The Guardian reported last month. Today, Facebook pledged to stop promoting anti-vax groups and pages in recommendations and in predictions in the search box. The company also promised to make it harder to find them through search or in the News Feed.

Twitter will let users be much more specific when reporting tweets with personal information

Twitter is adding new options to its reporting process for tweets that abusively share personal information, adding much more specific fields that users can highlight when submitting reports, Chaim Gartenberg reports.

Takes

A ‘privacy-focused’ Facebook would kill Zuckerberg’s business model

Alex Hern is not taking Zuckerberg seriously:

So whether or not Zuckerberg believes what he’s saying, the fact that Facebook’s stock price is barely changed on the news of Zuckerberg’s note suggests that the people who actually own Facebook don’t. They read that letter, and decided that their money was perfectly safe where it was. From their conclusion, it shouldn’t be hard to draw your own.

It’s time — high time — to take Fox News’s destructive role in America seriously

Margaret Sullivan calls Fox News a plague:

Everyone ought to see it for what it is: Not a normal news organization with inevitable screw-ups, flaws and commercial interests, which sometimes fail to serve the public interest.

But a shameless propaganda outfit, which makes billions of dollars a year as it chips away at the core democratic values we ought to hold dear: truth, accountability and the rule of law.

The India-Pakistan Conflict Was a Parade of Lies

Farhad Manjoo worries about the misinformation flying between two nuclear-armed neighbors:

What I found was alarming; it should terrify the world, not just Indians and Pakistanis. Whether you got your news from outlets based in India or Pakistan during the conflict, you would have struggled to find your way through a miasma of lies. The lies flitted across all media: there was lying on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp; there was lying on TV; there were lies from politicians; there were lies from citizens.

Besides outright lies, just about everyone, including many journalists, played fast and loose with facts. Many discussions were tinged with rumor and supposition. Pictures were doctored, doctored pictures were shared and aired, and real pictures were dismissed as doctored. Many of the lies were directed and weren’t innocent slip-ups in the fog of war but efforts to discredit the enemy, to boost nationalistic pride, to shame anyone who failed to toe a jingoistic line. The lies fit a pattern, clamoring for war, and on both sides they suggested a society that had slipped the bonds of rationality and fallen completely to the post-fact order.

And finally ...

Tim Cook is now Tim Apple on Twitter

On Wednesday President Trump referred to the CEO of Apple at “Tim Apple,” leading to widespread merriment on Twitter. Today, the CEO — Tim Cook — changed his last name to the official Apple emoji. Makena Kelly reports:

The Apple character isn’t a Unicode symbol and is only visible on Apple operating systems, unfortunately. So if you’re using an Android or Windows device, you’ll only see a blocked-out square or another “failed to render” symbol.

I’d change my Twitter name to Casey Interface, but I haven’t quite decided on the proper emoji.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and a note explaining exactly how seriously you take Mark Zuckerberg: casey@theverge.com.