US legislator questions whether Zuckerberg's privacy pivot is only going to make things worse

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan May 14, 2019
Sceptical about Facebook's conversion to privacy evangelist? You're not alone...


Regular readers will be aware that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently underwent a Damascene conversion and is now a big fan of privacy. So much so that he not only wants legislators to take his company - and the wider industry - in hand and regulate it more strongly, he also now sees Facebook pivoting around a “privacy-focused vision for the future of social media”.

Regular readers will also be aware that here at diginomica we don’t buy a word of it.

Nor does one US legislator who's delivered a scathingly questioning letter to Zuckerberg that queries how the CEO intends to monetise the platform if this vision comes to fruition. The intervention comes as scuttlebutt circulates about a possible 20 year settlement with US regulators.

For his part, Zuckerberg has previously played a ‘selfless’ card on the cost of his new vision, painting a picture of Facebook taking an inevitable hit for the greater good of all:

I understand that any regulation may hurt our business, but I think it’s necessary. Getting these issues right is more important than our interests. And I believe that regulation will help establish trust when people know that the right systems of governance and accountability are in place. So, over the long-term, I believe that that increase in the trustworthiness of the internet can have a much larger positive impact for our community and our business than any short-term hit that we’re going to take.

I said at the time that I had a speck of piety in my eye. Republican Senator Josh Hawley goes considerably further, openly accusing Zuckerberg of pulling the wool over people’s eyes:

While I hope that you and your platform can play a role in building the privacy-first future, I worry that your recent announcements indicate a different intention. ”To be blunt, I fear that your new platform’s aim is to capture and subvert the privacy revolution that threatens your business model and claim an empty public relations victory. You claim that your goal is to limit Facebook’s window into users lives, but your future profits demand that you expand that window.

Noting that Zuckerberg’s plan involves the use of end-to-end encryption, Hawley says:

This raises the question of how you can possibly monetize an encrypted platform.

Bigger picture

But there are wider concerns than Facebook’s bottom line, he notes:

If you succeed in capturing the encrypted messaging market, I fear that the net effect would be erosion rather than expansion of user privacy. A dominant Facebook Messenger could mean a transfer of information about users’ most sensitive contact lists— the people to whom users are closest and in whom they confide their deepest secrets, as well as the dates and times of those interactions—from platforms with no interest in monetizing such information to a platform whose business model relies on such data exploitation.

Hawley also calls into question Facebook’s intentions to expand into the e-payments sector which he argues opens up new questions around privacy concerns:

A payment system operated by Facebook as an intermediary within an encrypted messaging app is a potential vector for the transmission of sensitive information outside of the supposedly private ecosystem…If Facebook knows which businesses its users choose to communicate with through encrypted private messaging and whether such communications are initiated through ads on its non-private platform, it can extrapolate from such conversations information about user preferences that users presume to be private due to Facebook’s public presentation of its encrypted chat as a private online space.

He adds:

More troublingly, Facebook’s effort to gain a share of the market for online payments may threaten to undermine the privacy of encrypted conversations between friends and acquaintances. Users of other payment platforms use those mechanisms for some of their most sensitive interactions, from rent payments to ride sharing to shared costs for meals. A Facebook that knows which users transact with each other in these ways need not know the precise content of encrypted communication to determine sensitive details of users lives - details it can further feed into its advertising infrastructure.

Hawley concludes by calling for a response from Zuckerberg by 27 May, warning:

Your platform has earned immense power. It is unclear that you or your management team deserve the weighty responsibilities that come with it. I wish you the best if your intentions are as you suggest…But you long ago lost the benefit of the doubt.

The intervention by Hawley - who last week called for Zuckerberg and other execs to be held personally accountable for the company’s failings - comes as it looks as though the firm has wangled a deal with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to place itself under two decades of oversight by the Commission.

Such a deal would bring to an end the ongoing FTC probe into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but would inevitably be open to criticism that it lets Zuckerberg and his senior management off the hook. Meanwhile other voices, ranging from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to Democratic Party Presidential bidder Elizabeth Warren, continue to call for the company to be broken up as the only solution.

My take

Hawleys’ letter raises some very important questions and with its barely concealed cynicism about Facebook’s intentions is a welcome political intervention after so many of his colleagues have failed to step up to the mark. So far, Facebook’s made no public comment, but presumably Zuckerberg avatar and the company’s Apologist-in-Chief Nick Clegg is huddled over a laptop working out a response.

As for what looks suspiciously like a ‘get out of jail for not very much’ deal being cooked up with the FTC, it’s worth remembering that Facebook already signed a 20 year settlement with the Commission around privacy policy back in 2011. The words ‘fat lot of good that did’ spring to mind.