On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published more than 3,000 words blog post that seems to announce a major shift in Facebook’s strategy. In it, he said he believes that “privacy-focused communications infrastructure will become even more important than today’s open platforms.”
Zuckerberg explained that he wanted Facebook to build a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform, and described his vision thus:
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 wider voice. People find these useful every day, and there are still many useful jobs to build on them. But now, with all the ways people still want to interact privately, there’s still an opportunity to build a simple platform that focuses on privacy first.
He admits Facebook is a poor fit for this approach, saying, “We certainly don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protection services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing,” but :
I believe that the future of communication will shift further to private, encrypted services where people can be confident that what they say to each other is safe and their messages and content will not stay around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring.
He added that this will be built around the following principles:
- Private Communications
- Permanent reduction
- Secure data storage
As far as private interactions go, it means that you see users increasingly using group and direct messaging over or in addition to publishing content to all their friends or followers.
Zuckerberg made this position and the need for focus on privacy as the acquisitions that have arrived, but they are growing competitors to many products Facebook and businesses have already focused on for years.
End-to-end encryption across the Facebook network
It also announced plans to make all these communications end-to-end encrypted (this is already the case with WhatsApp). “In a few years, I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network,” he explained. “We are focused on making both applications faster, easier, more private and more secure, including end-to-end encryption.”
He discussed the advantages of this approach for security and privacy but acknowledged that there would be challenges for ensuring the safety of users in other ways:
When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them will use it for truly horrible things like child abuse, bullying, and harassment. We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can. We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our applications by detecting processes or through other means, even when we cannot see the content of messages, and we will continue to invest in this job.
Facebook has come under intense fire in the past few years for its failure or inability (depending on who you ask) to crack down on false or offensive content shared by its users. While the benefits of encryption are real and important, Zuckerberg and Facebook may be thinking of another upside. When encryption prevents access to the content of user messages, Facebook may face little expectations of responsibility for protecting users from those problems, because the implementation of any policies will be impossible in many cases.
“Reduce the wait”
Encryption isn’t the only way to protect users’ data, Zuckerberg argued. Snapchat-like impermanence of messages is also part of his plan.
Messages can be deleted after a month or a year by default. This will reduce the risk of your messages regurgitating and confusing you later. Of course you will have the ability to change the time period or turn off the automatic deletion for your threads if you want. And we can also provide you with the option to set individual messages to expire after a few minutes or minutes if you want.
He added that the company will limit the amount of time it stores sending metadata. Along with other changes, he placed this as an attempt to protect users’ data from overreaching governments.
Integrating WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger
Zuckerberg is also announcing that the company will integrate WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger into one messaging system, allowing users to send and receive messages seamlessly between them.
“People want to be able to choose which service they use to communicate with people,” said Zuckerberg, but “if you want to send a message to people on Facebook you have to use Messenger, on Instagram you have to use Direct, and on WhatsApp you have to use WhatsApp.”
In the new way, users will be able to send messages to their friends using any Facebook messaging app, regardless of which one those friends are using. Facebook has already said that it will not merge WhatsApp data with the rest of Facebook, but Facebook will break this promise by making the three applications share the same share in the background. according to to The New York Times‘the resources. The three messaging platforms together have 2.6 billion users. Facebook hopes to complete this transition in early 2020.
Zuckerberg said that interoperability will extend to SMS. This is already possible with the Messenger app on Android, but Facebook will expand that using the RCS standard. However, this feature will never be possible on iPhones, as Apple “does not allow applications to interact with SMS on their devices.”
While these changes will lead to greater convenience for users, they will also create a value proposition with which it will be very difficult for other platforms to compete. Another challenge identified by the blog post: this new system “will create security and spam vulnerabilities in the encryption system to allow people to send messages from unknown applications where our security and safety systems cannot detect the processes .”
Zuckerberg didn’t mention a solution for this, but said it’s something Facebook will work through.
Protecting user data from government abuse
Continuing the theme of user privacy and security, Zuckerberg said he would avoid storing user data in data centers located in countries where that data could be compromised by local governments—even meaning that Facebook is not will be able to expand where possible. would like to.
As we build our infrastructure around the world, we have chosen not to build data centers in countries with a track record of violating human rights such as privacy or freedom of expression. If we build data centers and store sensitive data in these countries, instead of collecting non-sensitive data, it can make it easier for those governments to collect people’s information.
Implementing this policy may mean that our services will be blocked in some countries, or that we will not be able to enter others anytime soon. That’s a business we want to do. We do not believe that storing personal data in some countries is a secure basis to build such important internet infrastructure on.
This could cause problems for expansion in China, a place that Facebook executives have previously cited as an area with growth potential.
The future of Facebook is more uncertain than ever
While some changes like end-to-end encryption are meant to ease users’ and regulators’ fears about privacy, other aspects of this vision will likely spark new outrage and criticism. Integrating the three messaging apps will make mobile messaging a less competitive market. We had The New York Times The report that the decision to integrate WhatsApp into the wider system has been seen as an internal betrayal, and WhatsApp employees and executives have begun to resign in protest.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, with the promise of freedom and a different standard for privacy than users of Facebook’s core social network. The decision to accept WhatsApp is informed by the data Facebook collects from its users about their use of smartphone applications other than Facebook, against the rules of smartphone platforms.
And there’s one important thing that hasn’t been discussed: how Facebook’s existing business model of collecting data and advertising based on that data will work with this approach going forward. Zuckerberg noted that this new approach to messages presents new business opportunities related to payments and other “private services”, and although he did not specify this, it is clear that giving advertisers the ability to reach users across all three messaging platforms can verify. privilege.
But given that Facebook’s current revenue model is based on large databases of publicly shared information, there are many questions to be asked. And this change will take a long time to make. But Zuckerberg can see the writing on the wall here: young people are using private messaging apps more than adults, and users, the press, and government officials are daily and loudly challenging and criticizing the company’s privacy practices. and the basics of the existing business model. .
Zuckerberg has announced privacy initiatives in the past, but then hasn’t delivered on them. This long blog post guarantees nothing but the start of a new phase of the conversation. Tellingly, Facebook’s stock didn’t budge on news of Zuckerberg’s post. Investors can wait to see how important it really is—and so, too, are users and regulators.