Facebook’s pivot to privacy has huge implications — if it’s real

By 2015, Mark Zuckerberg had grown uncomfortable with his messaging history. His old instant messages had gotten him into trouble in the past — people are still tweeting juvenile IMs from his college days — and the 2014 Sony hack had made him more concerned about his potential exposure. And so Facebook’s CEO took a step then unavailable to any of the 2.2 billion other users of his platform: he snapped his fingers, Thanos-like, and the messages disappeared.

Some of Zuckerberg’s correspondents noticed that their old conversations had suddenly become one-sided, and eventually told TechCrunch’s Josh Constine, who broke the story last April. There have been plenty of Facebook data privacy scandals over the past couple of years, but none bothered me quite as much as this one. As I wrote here at the time:

The good news is that Facebook knows how to build robust privacy tools when it wants to. The bad news is that it reserved such a powerful tool for the CEO, and admitted to it only under duress. That Zuckerberg deleted all of his chats, while leaving his recipients’ messages intact, says more about how he views privacy than any belated apology ever could.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Zuckerberg today announced — in a 3,200 word blog post — that he planned to pivot the entire company toward more private messaging. In addition to end-to-end encryption, Zuckerberg wrote, he also planned to eliminate the permanence of messages like the ones he had deleted on his behalf. Instead, he said, the messages would likely delete themselves after some specified amount of time, unless a user opted out. Facebook would even look for ways to store less metadata about message content, and retain it for shorter periods.

I attempted to cover the sweep of the news in a story for The Verge. Among the key quotes from Zuckerberg’s post is this one:

“I believe 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 says. “This is the future I hope we will help bring about.“

How significant is all this? The first question people are asking is whether Zuckerberg means what he says, and there are plenty of doubters. (For starters: Walt Mossberg; Om Malik; Sam Biddle; and Facebook investors, who hardly moved the stock price today.) John Herrman noted that Zuckerberg was against privacy before he was for it, and wondered if the CEO ought not to have provided a bit more detail on the nature of his recent religious conversion.

Then there’s the fact that Facebook’s privacy promises have historically been broken. Anonymous login, a much ballyhooed privacy feature announced in 2014 at F8, never shipped. And we’re all still waiting on a “clear history” button announced last May.

But say you take Zuckerberg at his word. Say Facebook pivots to privacy, investing most of its energy into groups and messaging products. If that becomes true, then what else is true?

The News Feed becomes a legacy product. Since its introduction, the endless scroll of updates from your friends has been the core of Facebook — synonymous with the experience of using the app itself. Zuckerberg just told the world that he expects it to slowly fade away — not without its uses, but no longer the center of all social media. This could have implications that extend well beyond Facebook proper — to Instagram, for example, and to Twitter.

Facebook has to find a new business model. The News Feed is more than just Facebook’s core consumer product — it’s the company’s core business unit. The News Feed is, along with Google’s AdWords, the most lucrative advertising product ever built. A world in which it withers away is one in which Facebook has to first replace, than exceed the revenues it currently generates from advertising. It will be a Herculean task.

That new business model will probably be commerce. Commerce and payments all the rage inside Facebook these days. On the commerce side, Instagram is spinning up a standalone shopping app. On the payments front, David Marcus’ team is developing a cryptocurrency. In his blog post, Zuckerberg says a more private suite of Facebook services will give rise to “businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.”

Regulators will have to make a choice. Lawmakers in some countries have expressed concern about a central element of Zuckerberg’s plan, which is to unify the back-end technologies powering Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Among other things, the move makes it harder for the Federal Trade Commission to order Facebook to spin off one or both of the latter two acquisitions. The question is whether they might allow the unification to go through in exchange for more robust privacy protections and a new business model that is less reliant on personal data. (This is a stretch! All of this is a stretch!)

Facebook will be banned in large countries. Countries including Russia and Vietnam are increasingly demanding that tech platforms store user data locally, where it is more easily intercepted by law enforcement agencies. The pivot to privacy doesn’t square with those laws, and could have significant consequences. Zuckerberg seems resigned to this fate:

“Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, or that we won’t be able to enter others anytime soon,” Zuckerberg writes. “That’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make. We do not believe storing people’s data in some countries is a secure enough foundation to build such important internet infrastructure on.”

Facebook will never open for business in China. Ryan Mac has a senior Facebook official saying that this is, in fact, the case.

Facebook will find itself increasingly at odds with law enforcement. People plan terrorism and other crimes using encrypted messaging apps, and in Facebook’s encrypted future, we can expect law enforcement agencies around the world to make great hay out of Facebook’s complicity. If I’m on Facebook’s communications team, I would actually see this as a good thing: Facebook standing up for its users in the face of pressure from, say, the FBI might help change public sentiment around who has their back, regardless of the particulars of the case. (I hasten to add that terrorism is bad and I hope that no one uses WhatsApp to plan it!)

Misinformation will become harder to track. WhatsApp is already a huge source of misinformation in countries where it is popular, most notably India and Brazil. Shifting more public conversation to encrypted private spaces will mean we have less visibility into public sentiment — and, potentially, how politics are being played by candidates and interest groups. It’s tradeoffs all the way down.

If you work at Facebook, all this would represent an extraordinary amount of change. It is not, exactly, unprecedented; one reader likened it to Microsoft’s announcement in 2002 that it would put privacy and security ahead of new feature development, after enduring years of criticism over security failures. But it’s still likely to be quite messy.

All that said: it could have real benefits, too, especially to normal people who just want to text friends, family, and co-workers, and not have it come back to haunt them. (Or have those messages used to target ads at them, in the way Messenger currently does.) This was Snapchat’s original insight, and Facebook is still learning it all these years later.

Zuckerberg is fond of grand pronouncements — it’s less than four years since he declared that the News Feed would one day primarily be video, and just two years since he announced that Facebook would concentrate on “developing social infrastructure,” whatever that might have meant. In any case, neither vision came true. Whether this one does, facing even longer odds, remains anyone’s guess.

The Trauma Floor

Valve under fire as sexually explicit game glorifying rape is listed on Steam

Every platform needs a content moderation policy, as Valve found out when someone planned to sell a game in which players controlled a “menacing serial rapist.” Today the company said it would not sell the game after all.

Democracy

U.S. users are leaving Facebook by the millions, Edison Research says

Edison Research’s national phone survey of Americans found a decline in Facebook usage, Kimberly Adams reports:

New numbers from Edison Research show an an estimated 15 million fewer users in the United States compared to 2017. The biggest drop is in the very desirable 12- to 34-year-old group. Marketplace Tech got a first look at Edison’s latest social media research. It revealed almost 80 percent of people in the U.S. are posting, tweeting or snapping, but fewer are going to Facebook.

Facebook’s reputation takes a hit in new survey

Speaking of surveys: Facebook’s reputation fell to a new low in a national poll conducted by Axios, Scott Rosenberg reports.

Congo’s internet shutdown disrupted news outlets under the guise of tackling fake news

Trésor Kalonji writes about the extraordinary efforts of journalists in Congo to report on a recent election despite an internet shutdown by the ruling party:

The shutdown lasted for 20 days — from 31 December 2018 until 19 January 2019 — and had major implications for the country, except for select businesses which were allowed to retain full access. According to the Netblocks Cost of Shutdown Tool, the blocking of social media alone could have cost the country as much as $2,980,324. The shutdown also had implications for media outlets, including Habari and politico.cd, which was forced to temporarily move part of its staff to Brazzaville, the capital of the neighbouring Republic of the Congo, at significant cost.

To circumvent many of the difficulties we would face, and to ensure the continuation of publications on the site, some Habari staff in the east made their way to Rwanda so that they could access the internet without restriction. Crossing the border to Rwanda is free of charge, but staff who do not have Rwandan residency had to cross back before it closed at 10pm.

Elsewhere

Snap Paid Settlements to Women Who Alleged Discrimination

Georgia Wells has a scoop on how Snap is dealing with its mistreatment of women employees — by paying them off!

Snap last year paid settlements to at least three female employees who were let go in layoffs that they alleged disproportionately targeted women, according to people familiar with the matter.

The layoffs came months after an engineer at the company raised concerns in an email to colleagues about what she said was a sexist culture, an assessment that Chief Executive Evan Spiegel later described as a “wake-up call.”

Facebook Shakes up Policy Communications Team

Ashley Gold reports that two of my trusted Facebook communications folks, Matt Steinfeld and Robert Traynham, are moving on. Steinfeld is off to SoftBank, and Traynham is moving “elsewhere in Facebook.”

How Middle School Subverted Instagram’s Slider Emoji Tool

Evan Selinger reports on some inventive new cruelty among middle schoolers. Naturally, it involves the Instagram slider emoji tool.

Kids at Rory’s school are using it to ask: “How much do you think I like you?” Then, they’re posting the results of each individual kid’s answer. How? Not by using an official poll tool, but by sharing a screenshot.

There’s an extra-special subversive twist here, one that’s optimized to spread misery. They’re not just posting clean screenshots, but are adding new information. They’re marking down how much they actually like the person who took the risk of being publicly judged — putting on clear display, for everyone to see, the difference between how much a person thought she was valued and the real deal.

Tinder Privately Valued at Roughly $10 Billion by Match Group: Sources

“A recent independent valuation of Tinder commissioned by parent company Match Group has placed the dating app’s value at roughly $10 billion, an astounding increase from a $3 billion valuation less than two years ago,” Alex Heath reports.

Launches

Facebook’s promised Clear History privacy tool now launching later this year

From last week, when the newsletter was on a break, but newly relevant with today’s privacy pivot. It speaks to the large gap that often exists between announcing something and shipping it:

The Clear History tool was promised in May of last year, just before the company’s F8 developer conference, and at that point was still just an idea designed to earn back lost user trust, BuzzFeed News reported in an investigation on Clear History’s rocky development published last week. At the time, CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the tool as working similarly to one’s browser history and a step forward in helping the company repair its image following the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.

Takes

Are Men at Google Paid Less Than Women? Not Really

Nitasha Tiku makes sense of Google’s recent pay equity study, which showed that in one case a group of men was about to be underpaid relative to women who do the same job. (The error was caught before the paychecks went out.)

Google said it shared the male pay gap in this instance because the results were counterintuitive. But the analysis arrives as Google faces an investigation by the US Department of Labor and a lawsuit by current and former female employees, both of which allege that Google discriminates systematically against women in pay and promotion. Kelly Ellis, a former Google software engineer and plaintiff in the lawsuit, claims she was hired in at Level 3, the category for recent college grads, despite having four years of professional experience. The lawsuit alleges that weeks after Ellis joined the company, Google hired a male engineer with the same experience at Level 4, which translated into a higher salary and potential access to bigger bonuses and more stock.

And finally …

Teens ‘Like’ Everything On Social Media Now

Likes used to be sacred — used sparingly, in honor of only the most worth content. But the next generation simply likes everything, Hussein Kesvani writes, devaluing the very nature of the heart icon:

In some ways, I posited to my cousin, littering his feed with likes could actually be interpreted as a form of resistance. After all, liking everything messes up the algorithm that was providing so much of his personal information to Big Social and the advertisers it rakes in the cash from. Could it be then that instead of being redundant in its effectiveness, the like was the key to reclaiming the internet?

Time will tell. In the meantime please hit the thumbs-up icon at the end of this newsletter!

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your most private encrypted ephemeral messages: casey@theverge.com.