Facebook’s former chief of security says its privacy pivot is ‘punting’ on its hardest issues

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a bombshell announcement earlier this week that his company would pivot to a “privacy-focused communications platform” that prioritizes encrypted private messaging and groups over the public-facing posts and the algorithm-driven News Feed.

According to the company’s former security chief, Alex Stamos, the move could mean that some of Facebook’s toughest issues around moderating speech and curbing bad behavior effectively disappear. “Mark Zuckerberg decided he can’t be in the middle anymore. The middle is where you lose continuously,” Stamos told a crowd at Vox Media’s SXSW event series, referring to Facebook’s attempt to straddle a line between strictly controlling speech and behavior on its platform and respecting freedom of expression.

When it comes to bad actors on the platform, be it Russians trying to organize election interference or anti-vaccine proponents spreading false information, “Facebook is effectively saying that is not our problem,” Stamos adds, saying that such problems “will for the most part disappear” in a world that shifts away from the algorithmically dictated News Feed and recommendation engine. “I see him [Mark] punting on that class of issues because that’s a class of issues where he can’t win.”

While Facebook did in fact remove anti-vaccine groups and pages from its recommendation engine this past week, the company still won’t outright remove those organizations from the platform. And that situation is emblematic of the kind of middle-ground position that Stamos says invites the most criticism toward Zuckerberg’s existing approach.

Essentially, Facebook is criticized for not doing enough to curb misinformation and other unsavory content from one side, while the other balks at any indication that a private company gets to decide what more than 2.3 billion people say on the world’s most populous and far-reaching digital platform.

But by shifting toward private groups and messaging, with a key focus on encryption to win back consumers and critics concerned about privacy, Facebook may be able to dodge having to make those lose-lose calls, Stamos says.

“This indicates to me that… he’s giving up News Feed and public because apparently his data from this decision shows that the want to be public or semi-public is a declining desire of people,” Stamos says. He adds that the shift also makes clear that Zuckerberg is giving up on the web (because encrypting chats in a browser would not be possible), and giving up on China (where the government would never let an American company operate with direct control over the data.)

Of course, we don’t yet know how Facebook intends to pull all of this off; the shift is predicated on the company pulling off its interoperable vision for a system that connects together Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp and even SMS. It’s also not really clear what role the traditional Facebook, with public pages and the News Feed, would play in this new vision.

It’s entirely possible Facebook keeps that part of its product intact and gears it toward older users and those still comfortable with the company’s approach to data collection and ad targeting. In that world, Zuckerberg wouldn’t be “punting” on its hardest issues, but rather just turning the spotlight away from the part of its platform that is most susceptible to bad actors, which doesn’t do much to make Facebook a healthier environment.

But Stamos says the biggest hurdle for Facebook going forward will be monetary. If the company does create an encrypted, united messaging system and encourages users to abandon its core product, its ad targeting will become much less effective and may result in substantially lower interest from advertisers. “The real question,” Stamos says, “is what speed that happens, and as they give up this ad revenues can they find other revenue to replace it.”