Mark Zuckerberg gets privacy religion, but is it a case of 'born again' or cynical pragmatism?

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan March 6, 2019
A born again privacy evangelist or a beleaguered CEO bowing to the inevitable?

On the mea culpa tour

Facebook is going to be all about privacy! Hurrah! Lesson learned!! Problem over!!!

And if you believe that, let’s talk about what price you’re prepared to pay for Sydney Harbor Bridge!

In case you missed it, yesterday Mark Zuckerberg posted a 3200 word blog post on Facebook which seems to be a new level in the mea culpa apology tour that’s been going on since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. In it he pledges to make over Facebook as a privacy-focused communications platform, arguing that the reason for this is due to consumer demand.

That’ll be a relief to those cynical enough - hi! - to suggest that this Damascene conversion owes more to the growing threat of regulatory intervention on a national and international scale.

To his (small) credit, Zuckerberg does concede that he’s aware that millions of people are going to be hugely skeptical about this latest development:

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,

But he adds:

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

This is not to say that this is ‘instead of’ Facebook as it is now; public platforms won’t be going away:

Public social networks will continue to be very important in people's lives -- for connecting with everyone you know, discovering new people, ideas and content, and giving people a voice more broadly. People find these valuable every day, and there are still a lot of useful services to build on top of them. But now, with all the ways people also want to interact privately, there's also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that's focused on privacy first.

So, when and how?

There’s a fair bit of equivocation in Zuckerberg’s testimonial to privacy. He wants Facebook to “help” bring about this future. Change will take place ‘over the next few years” after which time he “expects” things to have changed in a world that he believes we should all be “working towards”.

Now, fair enough, it was never likely that things could change overnight and Zuckerberg does make a sound point about getting the initial questions answered before embarking on massive change:

Over the next year and beyond, there are a lot more details and tradeoffs to work through related to each of these principles. A lot of this work is in the early stages, and we are committed to consulting with experts, advocates, industry partners, and governments -- including law enforcement and regulators -- around the world to get these decisions right.

At the same time, working through these principles is only the first step in building out a privacy-focused social platform. 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.

But these initial questions are critical to get right. If we do this well, we can create platforms for private sharing that could be even more important to people than the platforms we've already built to help people share and connect more openly.

That said, there is also a whiff here of trying to cast Facebook’s current crises as part of a wider societal problem which Zuckerberg’s creation wants to help fix rather than, as many would argue, Facebook actually being the root cause of the problem in the first place:

As a society, we have an opportunity to set out where we stand, to decide how we value private communications, and who gets to decide how long and where data should be stored. I believe we should be working towards a world where people can speak privately and live freely knowing that their information will only be seen by who they want to see it and won't all stick around forever. If we can help move the world in this direction, I will be proud of the difference we've made.

Bring a tear to a glass eye, that would. I’m welling up as I write.

There are some welcome commitments, if they end up being followed through, such as a pledge not to store sensitive data in countries with “weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression”

But again, while the soundbite is good,  the devil will be in the detail - what are we defining as sensitive and whose definition of human rights will dominate? But hey, this is so important that Facebook is nobly prepared to take a hit:

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. That's a trade-off we're willing to make.

You can't buy nobility like that...

My take

Like a reformed smoker or a born again evangelist, Zuckerberg has discovered the importance of privacy - hallelujah! - and all it took was a couple of years of scandal and the threat of predatory regulators circling like sharks in the ocean.

I very much doubt that any of this is going to be enough to keep those regulators at bay. For a start, there’s a lot of emphasis on the need for end-to-end encryption in what Zuckerberg is preaching here and that’s anathema to a lot of governments and security services.

There’s also the wider question of trust. Such is the ownership structure of Facebook, all or any of this will only work if Zuckerberg can be taken at his word and he’s a ‘reformed character’ when it comes to privacy. That being so, the real question is quite simple - do you trust Mark Zuckerberg?