Can Zuckerberg really make a privacy-friendly Facebook?

Can Zuckerberg really make a privacy-friendly Facebook?

Facebook will also display similar advertising on the privacy-protected messaging services

After building a social network that turned into a surveillance system, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he’s shifting his company’s focus to messaging services designed to serve as fortresses of privacy.

Instead of just being the network that connects everyone, Facebook wants to encourage small numbers of individuals to carry on encrypted conversations that neither Facebook nor any other outsider can read. It also plans to let messages automatically disappear, a feature pioneered by its rival Snapchat that could limit the risks posed by a trail of social media posts that follow people throughout their lives.

It’s a major bet by Zuckerberg, who sees it as a way to push Facebook more firmly into a messaging market that’s growing faster than its main social networking business. It might also help Facebook ward off government regulators, although the Facebook CEO made clear that he expects the company’s messaging business to complement, not replace, its core businesses.

READ MORE: NDP MP calls for Facebook investigation following UK media reports

But there are plenty of obstacles. Facebook has weathered more than two years of turbulence for repeated privacy lapses, spreading disinformation, allowing Russian agents to conduct targeted propaganda campaigns and a rising tide of hate speech and abuse. Zuckerberg submitted to two days of grilling on Capitol Hill last April. All that increases the challenge of convincing users that Facebook really means it about privacy this time.

Encrypted conversations could alleviate some of those problems, but it could make others worse. Security is an “admirable goal,” said Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo. “I’m just not sure it addresses the bigger issues Facebook is facing right now.”

Facebook grew into a colossus by vacuuming up peoples’ information in every possible way and dissecting it to shoot targeted ads back at them. Anything that jeopardizes that machine could pose a major threat to the company’s share price, which would also affect its ability to attract and retain talented engineers and other employees.

In a Wednesday interview with The Associated Press, Zuckerberg predicted Facebook’s emphasis on privacy will do more to help the company’s business than hurt it. While most of the stock market slipped in Wednesday trading, Facebook’s shares gained $1.25 to close at $172.51.

The Facebook CEO has been telegraphing some of these changes to investors for the past six months, but his Wednesday blog post is the first time he has explained the idea to the more than two billion people that use Facebook’s services and look at its ads. Those ads are expected to generate $67 billion in revenue this year, according to the research firm eMarketer.

If everything falls into place, Facebook will also display similar advertising on the privacy-protected messaging services. Those services are also likely to offer other moneymaking features, such as a digital wallet, as Facebook attempts to build something similar to Tencent’s popular WeChat service in Asia.

“If you think about your life, you probably spend more time communicating privately than publicly,” Zuckerberg said in his AP interview. “The overall opportunity here is a lot larger than what we have built in terms of Facebook and Instagram.”

That’s far from proven. While Facebook has already tried to show ads in the Messenger app, it’s seen only limited success, and hasn’t even tested the concept in WhatsApp since it acquired that service for $22 billion in 2014.

“There are some huge unknowns about how successful Facebook is going to be rolling advertising into a more private messaging environment,” said eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson.

Some critics are convinced that Facebook has become so powerful — even a threat to democracy as well as to people’s privacy — that it needs to be reined in by tougher regulations or even a corporate breakup.

But unraveling Facebook could become more difficult if Zuckerberg can successfully stitch together the messaging services behind an encrypted wall.

“I see that as the goal of this entire thing,” said Blake Reid, a University of Colorado law professor who specializes in technology and policy. He said Facebook could tell antitrust authorities that WhatsApp, Instagram Direct and Facebook Messenger are tied so tightly together that it couldn’t unwind them.

Combining the three services also lets Facebook build more complete data profiles on all of its users. Already, businesses can already target Facebook and Instagram users with the same ads, and marketing campaigns are likely coming to WhatsApp eventually.

Facebook’s focus on messaging privacy raises other concerns. Messaging apps have in the past helped fake news and rumours spread fast, sometimes with deadly consequences. A report from University of Oxford researchers last year found evidence of widespread disinformation campaigns on chat applications like WhatsApp. In one particularly brutal example, the Indian government last year accused WhatsApp of fueling rumours that led to lynchings and mob violence that wounded dozens.

Facebook responded by restricting the number of groups to which a message could be forwarded and labeling forwarded messages as such. On Wednesday, Zuckerberg said that Facebook needs to protect both privacy and safety as it encrypted messaging services, although he noted to an “inherent trade-off” between security and safety, simply because Facebook won’t be able to read encrypted conversations.

READ MORE: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he’ll double down on privacy

And in some cases, Facebook could allow some content to automatically disappear in a day or two, as if it were a fleeting mirage.

“Some people want to store their messages forever and some people think having large collections of photos or messages is a liability as much as it is an asset,” Zuckerberg told the AP. “Figuring out the balance is a really important one.”

Michael Liedtke, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Motorists breaking travel rules can be fined $230 for failing to follow instructions or $575 if the reason for travel violates the essential travel health order, at this Highway 3 check area near Manning Park. Photo RCMP
RCMP begin stopping drivers on BC highways – check point at Manning Park

Four check points are set up Thursday May 6 around the province

The Aquilini Investment Group has agreed to a proposed contract of five years to run the Abbotsford Centre. (File photo)
Proposal to run Abbotsford Centre offered to Canucks ownership group

Planned five-year contract to cost city $750K annually, starting Jan. 1, 2022

The AHL Board of Governors has approved the Vancouver Canucks decision to move their franchise to Abbotsford. (File photo)
AHL approves Canucks’ franchise relocation to Abbotsford

Board of Governors approves move, season set to start on Oct. 15

Abbotsford Police Department Traffic Enforcement Unit officers were enforcing Highway 11 on Thursday morning. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
Abbotsford police enforce traffic on Highway 11

APD Traffic Enforcement Unit regularly responds to general public hot spot complaints

First responders were on the scene at West Oaks Mall following a collision involving a pedestrian on Sept. 29, 2020. (Kevin MacDonald file photo)
Man charged in relation to hit-and-run that injured pedestrian in Abbotsford

Collision took place in September 2020 in crosswalk at West Oaks Mall

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Surrey RCMP is investigating after a serious three-vehicle crash at the intersection of King George Boulevard and 128th Street Thursday afternoon (May 6, 2021). (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
VIDEO: Serious crash in Surrey sends 1 to hospital

Surrey RCMP say one of the drivers fled on foot, but was later found at an area hospital

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association. (Screen shot)
Salmon farmers warn Surrey jobs on line as feds end Discovery Islands operations

344 full-time jobs at risk in Surrey and 1,189 B.C.-wide

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Photo of suspected cat thief released by Victoria police actually just woman with her pet

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read