Facebook's Zuckerberg commits to privacy-focused platform

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Facebook will pivot toward privacy over the next few years, "building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform" that includes end-to-end encryption, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday.

Facebook says it will pivot toward privacy over the next few years, "building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform" that includes end-to-end encryption, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday.

Maintaining that "the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever," Zuckerberg pledged to reduce the permanence of content posted to the site.

"As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms," Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post. "Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks."

After fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian operatives leveraging the platform in malign information campaigns as well as a number of data breaches and incident that brought Facebook’s data collection and sharing policies into question, the company has struggled to reassure users that it’s prioritising privacy and while trying to rebuild trust. Zuckerberg noted the skepticism that the social media giant’s pivot would invite.

"I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform – because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing," Zuckerberg wrote, stressing that Facebook does have a history of building services that its users want.

The company says it will place a premium on safety, increase the interoperability of Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp so that users can "communicate across networks easily and securely" and ensure secure data storage so that users can rest easy that Facebook "won’t store sensitive data in countries with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression in order to protect data from being improperly accessed," he said.

Acknowledging that Facebook faces an obstacle-laden course still in its early stages, Zuckerberg said just building a privacy-oriented social media platform isn’t enough. "Beyond that, significant thought needs to go into all of the services we build on top of that foundation – from how people do payments and financial transactions, to the role of businesses and advertising, to how we can offer a platform for other private services," he said.

As expected Zuckerberg’s privacy pivot drew both praise and skepticism.

"Consumers are concerned not only about possible theft of their privacy, but also about profiteers," said Unisys Chief Trust Officer Tom Patterson, who applauded the company’s "focus on the value of providing true consumer privacy."

Unisys, he said, "clearly understands the need for privacy improvements across the board and welcomes Facebook’s shift in strategy toward a more privacy-enhanced medium as a positive step in a long path toward consumer privacy." Results of the annual Unisys Security Index show a consumer body willing to embrace privacy and security technology "when it’s in place to protect their personal security, banking and travel" though they "clearly remain concerned about its use in advertising and other commercial purposes," Patterson said. 

But Shane Green, the US CEO of data privacy app, digi.me, and co-founder of the ethical data monetisation platform UBDI said Zuckerberg’s announcement was yet "another effort to buy time and hold regulators at the gate." The Facebook CEO doesn’t "address the real problem – Facebook’s business model. When revenues are based on owning and exploiting user data, it is disingenuous to suggest that these measures will make a difference and eliminate harm to users."

Facebook will have to overcome a splotchy history of privacy incidents to convince critics that the company is committed to privacy. "Mark Zuckerberg has completely burned up whatever currency he once had in the conversation around privacy in the tech sector," said Dan Goldstein, president and owner of digital marketing agency Page 1 Solutions, pointing to a recent reports by The Guardian that the social media company has been actively lobbying for more lax privacy laws in different countries worldwide.  "He has proved time and again that Facebook is perfectly willing to sacrifice users’ private data and security in the pursuit of profit. When he says Facebook is going to start favoring encryption and privacy, I’ll believe it when I see it."

But, Goldstein said, "the mechanism through which Zuckerberg proposes to pivot Facebook from a mass communication tool to something more intrinsically private is, at the very least, intriguing," contending that "the vague portrait Zuckerberg paints in his blog post" is reminiscent of the "short-lived, person-to-person communications "that characterize Snapchat.

"Facebook has always billed itself as a global connector," said Goldstein. "As dubious as Zuckerberg’s announcement about pivoting to better privacy and security is, perhaps the biggest challenge will be the technological and branding shift to a social network that facilitates intimate conversations rather than blasts of publicly available information."

Facebook’s refocus underscores another ongoing debate – over data ownership. While "Unisys believes that a holistic privacy solution throughout the social media construct that both recognises the advertising revenue-based models, and equally holds consumers’ right to privacy paramount, will be of benefit to all," Patterson said, "The question of who owns consumer data is large, global, and critical, and will become even more so in the coming years as all aspects of our lives become hyper connected." 

A survey carried out in February 2019 by Eskenzi PR revealed that 83 percent of Brits believe that Facebook should be regulated, and that 73 percent believe the platform is damaging peoples' mental health. When survey respondents were asked the reasons why they believe Facebook should be regulated, they were concerned about privacy issues, data misuse, cyber-bullying and that the platform is being used by cyber-criminals.

This article was originally published on SC Media US.

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