The Blind Spot in Facebook’s Vision of Privacy

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Photo by Kevin Hendersen.

Last month, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg penned a mammoth blog post describing a turn toward privacy in the social network’s creative path. Zuckerberg has always described Facebook’s mission as bringing people together. The question as Facebook moves forward is whether bringing people together will continue to mean drawing as many people onto the platform as possible and maximizing the distribution of user-generated content.

Zuckerberg describes that Facebook we all know—the one where content from friends and businesses alike floats around our many News Feeds, surfacing for reasons sometimes difficult to understand—as a “town square.” With concerns about privacy hitting a fever pitch and California’s major privacy law set to take effect in January 2020, the company is pivoting from the town square model to what Zuckerberg calls living-room-style communication.

The turn toward the living room means fewer political rants and news stories and more chatting among small groups of people on Messenger and WhatsApp. It means encryption and the eventual disappearance of messages, preventing Facebook itself and certainly other entities from reading what Facebook users share in its vast ecosystem of social and chat apps. It also means investing in just older than nascent means of sharing information on the Internet like stories, which Facebook has copied from younger rival Snapchat to great success.

What does this vision of privacy seem to get right about the political movement that is generating legislation on both sides of the Atlantic and even garnering attention in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election in the United States? What will be lost and gained as the Facebook experience shifts from a town square to a living room for each of its users, if that change is indeed possible?

Zuckerberg acknowledges the company’s unambiguously poor record on privacy. Just this month, news broke of yet another incident in which Facebook handed over user data to third parties who then failed to store it safely. Even more troublingly, the company was reportedly notified of the error in January, and the issue was not addressed until more than two months later.

Zuckerberg rightly insists, however, that Facebook has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to give its users what they want, and the data supposedly show that messaging and stories are the already present future of how we prefer to use social networks, leaving public political rants to our awkward relatives unacquainted with social networking’s evolving norms. As Kara Swisher insists, then, Facebook’s shift toward privacy can be seen less as a noble or ideological turn and more as more of the same: a single-minded focus on preserving its relevance and monetization, stealing ideas from privacy-oriented competitors like Snapchat when it suits the finance team’s spreadsheet. In this case, giving the users what they seem to want would appear to be a change for the better. If the company is just responding to what users already prefer, it’s probably getting something crucial right about what motivates the rising clamor for consumer privacy.

Privacy as Zuckerberg envisions it, though, certainly misses the mark on another key facet of the privacy movement and broader calls to increase regulatory scrutiny of Big Tech. Namely, orienting Facebook’s services around messaging and fulfilling its basic obligation as a steward of user data to protect that data from third parties’ eyes does little or nothing to alter the exploitation of users and user data on which critics say Facebook’s business model relies. Those critics of what I am here referring to as exploitation are not limited to typically left-wing academics like Shoshana Zuboff, who has popularized the term surveillance capitalism to describe the fortunes tech executives have made by monetizing and predicting user behavior. Jaron Lanier, tech entrepreneur, virtual reality pioneer, and interdisciplinary scientist at Microsoft, visited The Verge this month to criticize the tech companies’ monetization of user data in a different tone but with equally unequivocal force. Lanier predicts that the future will bring a whole industry of agencies dedicated to mediating the commercial relationship between consumers, who will sell their data at different rates, and the enterprises that would like to profit from it.

Insofar as Facebook’s pivot to privacy fails to reward its users for the data that has made it one of the world’s most powerful and profitable companies, I see it as a modest change that is more reactive than proactive, more inevitable than forward-thinking. It is likely that Facebook is only beginning to lay out its moves on privacy, and more ambitious changes may lie ahead. But for now, when it comes to the most pressing, fundamental ethical challenges that are inciting political fervor and increasing the likelihood that serious regulation of Big Tech is on the way, Zuckerberg is dragging his feet. With luminaries like Lanier and Zuboff raising public awareness about Facebook’s business model, the truth may just catch up with him.

Follow Joe on Twitter @joe_zappa.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015. You can contact him at [email protected]