At its annual developer conference on Tuesday, Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed off new plans to turn over a new leaf—or at least to give the impression of doing so.
The company has been plagued by scandals in recent years, with most revolving around privacy and its handling of user data. For last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company is preparing to pay fines totaling $3 billion, with total costs potentially adding up to $5 billion. It would be the largest fine ever imposed on a technology company in US history.
And as it wraps up its yearlong investigation of whether Facebook is in violation of the terms of a 2011 settlement over privacy violations, sources at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggested to the Washington Post that the agency is considering ways to hold Zuckerberg personally accountable for Facebook’s privacy violations.
“I know we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” Zuckerberg said at the two-day conference in San Jose, California.
Much of the redesign unveiled on Tuesday amounts to a shift in focus from the public News Feed to features like Facebook’s groups, Stories, and private messaging. Facebook’s Stories feature allows users to post updates that disappear automatically after 24 hours. These changes will eventually be applied to both the mobile app and desktop site.
“By far, the three fastest-growing areas of online communication are private messaging, groups and Stories. In 2019, we expect the amount of Stories that are shared to outnumber the amount of Feed posts that are shared,” Zuckerberg said on Tuesday.
Zuckerberg has framed the changes as a shift away from the “digital town square” model he had once envisioned for Facebook. Instead of a public forum to bring the world together, Zuckerberg says, Facebook plans to shift toward private and group-based interactions, with less emphasis on the News Feed. The shift will come with a cleaner and less cluttered interface, including a design that embraces a minimalistic white over the company’s trademark blue color scheme. Eventually, Zuckerberg hopes to bring together the company’s platforms, so that users can communicate across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger.
“Over time, I believe that a private social platform will be even more important to our lives than our digital town squares. So today, we’re going to start talking about what this could look like as a product, what it means to have your social experience be more intimate, and how we need to change the way we run this company in order to build this,” Zuckerberg added.
These changes, and Zuckerberg’s narrative behind it, miss the point almost entirely. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged over a year ago, the public was outraged that Facebook had gathered personal data from users and allowed access to a shadowy third-party. Other investigations, seemingly one after the other, have focused on Facebook’s collection of user data, and measures (or lack thereof) to keep that data secure. Admittedly, some of the changes announced Tuesday do involve protections from true data breaches, including end-to-end encryption for messages and more secure data storage. These protections are long overdue.
The problem is that Facebook itself went out of its way to make it clear that the Cambridge Analytica incident was not a data breach. The data analytics firm gained access to the data, including from unsuspecting friends of the few users that actually consented, through an app that followed Facebook’s terms of service at the time. Even those that did consent were led to believe their information was being used for academic research, not political data analysis that would be used by the Trump campaign. The incident was not a breach, but revealed inherent problems in the way Facebook handles user data.
And as information science professor Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in The New York Times last month, the company still has yet to address concerns over its data collection, which extends to browsing behavior, health and financial information, and even to creating “shadow profiles” on people who haven’t even created Facebook accounts.
“Will it change its fundamental business model, which is based on charging advertisers to take advantage of this widespread surveillance to ‘micro-target’ consumers?” Tufekci asks.
According to Consumer Reports, Facebook has failed to introduce changes to its overall business model of extensive data collection to facilitate targeted advertisements, both on and off Facebook itself. It’s a far cry from the model privacy advocates are calling for, a privacy-respectful service in which users exert direct control over any data collected from them.
At Tuesday’s conference, Facebook offer no reason to expect a substantive change of course on these issues. The company is offering added flexibility over what other Facebook users can see, and for how long. It’s minimizing the role of the highly-public News Feed. It’s offering overdue protections to ensure that private messages remain private. It’s bringing Facebook a more “intimate” feel. But none of this addresses the public’s concern over what data is being collected behind the scenes, and how widely it’s being shared beyond Facebook.