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Explained: What Facebook’s vision of ‘privacy’ shows

Since about the beginning of 2018, Facebook has been under constant fire over its handling of user privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which broke last March, was just the tip of the iceberg.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | New Delhi |
Updated: May 2, 2019 9:32:24 am
Explained: What Facebook’s vision of ‘privacy’ shows Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook’s developer conference Tuesday. (AP Photo)

The “future is private”, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has declared. At Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference that started this week, he laid out an agenda for a privacy-focused social network, besides making several product announcements typical of such events.

Facebook and privacy

Since about the beginning of 2018, Facebook has been under constant fire over its handling of user privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which broke last March, was just the tip of the iceberg.

Reports have revealed how Facebook tracked users, gave some third-party apps special privileges with regard to user data, collected call record data and contacts of Android users, and generally played fast and loose with user privacy. Most recently it was revealed that millions of Facebook passwords were stored in plain text instead of being encrypted, compromising user privacy and safety.

Facebook knows it is in trouble over privacy. In its earnings calls, Facebook said it expects to be fined $3 billion-$5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is inquiring into its user data practices.

What Zuckerberg said

Facebook and its core products like Messenger and Instagram will change from being the digital equivalent of a town square to a more private network, according to the vision that Zuckerberg pitched. The six principles of this private social network would be: private communications, end-to-end encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability among all Facebook’s apps, and secure data storage.

The Messenger app will get end-to-end encryption by default, something that WhatsApp, which too, is owned by Facebook, already has. End-to-end encryption would mean that no third party, including Facebook, would be able to read messages sent over the platform. It would also mean that Messenger would no longer store messages. “We would enable more than 2 billion people to have their conversation privately,” Zuckerberg said.

Also, Messenger will get a ‘Friends’ tab, where private updates or Stories from just close friends will be visible, rather than those of all connections. There will be a private video watching feature, where a user would be able to invite their closest friends and family to watch a video together during the chat session.

Facebook will also focus more on Groups on the main app and site, since it views these as more intimate and personal connections for users on the platform.

What Zuckerberg didn’t say

Zuckerberg blogged on his grand vision of privacy earlier this year. During the keynote, smiling broadly, he said they “don’t have the strongest reputation on privacy”, and his audience laughed.

He gave no timeline for some of the announcements. It is not known when Messenger will get end-to-end encrypted messaging, and it was unclear whether Instagram, which too has an in-built messaging service, would get such a feature in the future, considering that the growth of the app has outpaced even that of Facebook’s.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would work with experts to get things right, but exactly when and how this process will work out is not clear.

Following from this privacy focus is the question of what happens to Facebook’s business model, which is based on advertising. Facebook’s enormous success has been due to the size of its user base, and its ability to use it to grab a major chunk of digital advertising. Internal documents released by a UK parliamentary committee last year showed that Facebook understood the value of this data trove, and used it successfully to bolster its business and defeat the competition.

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