Facebook is a paradox. I don’t know of anyone, anymore, who says that they love the platform or that it delivers them meaningful connections to others. Addicted? Sure. Attached to the convenience of a simple format for communication? Yeah, that too. But genuinely happy with what Facebook is and how it delivers its product? Nope. There are plenty of socioeconomic theories that go into this, most of them revolving around Facebook’s putative status as a monopoly — a status that is questionable, at best, but at least understandable. We’re using century old legal frameworks to explain a concept both more modern and far more ancient: when someone else has what you want, life isn’t as pleasant as it could be. Facebook, like it or not, has things that we apparently do want, including Instagram pictures, WhatsApp messages, Facebook messenger messages, and Farmville.
So perhaps it’s just our collective annoyance with Facebook, or our general frustration with having to constantly uncover a new, unsavory element of how the social networking platform operates, but this year has been a tough one. There was Cambrdige Analytica, there was the impending multibillion dollar fine from the FTC, there was the revelation that phone numbers have been harvested and misused (without the right to opt-out), there was the Onavo VPN snooping issue….it’s been a busy time for the Menlo Park company.
And yet. The company posted substantial profits in Q4 2018 and beat the Street. It is losing members from the main enterprise, but many of those people are simply switching to Instagram, and so there is no meaningful loss of revenue potential. None of those fines or regulatory punishments we hear are inevitably coming have actually come yet, and so the company simply moves on, managing to be both bête noire of the privacy community and an integral part of social life on the internet and off, through its messaging platforms. I mean, where else are we going to get our gossip?
Perhaps things are changing, you might wonder. This past week, Facebook announced that it would be shifting its existing practices and developing a cross-platform messaging service, one designed to facilitate ease of communication and place privacy at the center of what the company does. It involves Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram, which collectively process billions of messages per year, and have billions of users. It’s the kind of announcement that you might think demonstrates that, at last, the lessons of Zuckerberg’s annus horribilis have sunk in.
Except “privacy” can mean a lot of different things depending on context. After all, the Chinese government last year embraced an initiative to shore up privacy and security of communications that some said went even further than GDPR. Just reading the headline, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that this was a relative liberalization of China’s oversight of personal data and its relentless monitoring of its citizens’ behavior. So how do we reconcile that idea with the fact that Dutch white hat Victor Gevers uncovered a government entity in China recording the “breed ready” status of approximately 2 million women, some as young as 15?
Because when I say I’m going to protect your privacy, it means very little if I don’t tell you whom I’m going to protect it from. Chinese cybersecurity and privacy laws are all about protecting the privacy of personal information from unwelcome third parties, but the presupposition is that the government is always welcome, and, therefore, not subject to the exclusionary concept of privacy typically held in the West. More simply: Privacy for thee, except from me.
Now let’s recontextualize Facebook’s announcement. It would be all but inconceivable for Facebook to close itself off from the treasure trove of data contained in messages. After all, they are a unique insight into the actions and intent of billions of users: someone mentions fixing a leaky faucet in a WhatsApp message and then an ad for a wrench appears in Facebook. In the same way, Facebook hasn’t made any promises (at all) to modify its business model with respect to third parties or the ability they have to place targeted ads or track users. Even if end-to-end encryption across all of Facebook’s communications platforms comes into place and there are more explicit promises of non-monitoring, the company has a history of overpromising and underdelivering on privacy pledges, which has left many commentators skeptical of what this announcement actually means.
Could this skepticism prove unfounded? Of course. Ultimately, this entire episode will resolve based on how Facebook responds to the shifting public mood on privacy. If privacy does, in fact, become a central component of Facebook’s operations and it modifies its approach to personal data, it could ignite a fierce competition for preeminence among the tech giants about who will be the privacy leader. But without more evidence, the “privacy is our business” claim, for now, seems a little hard to swallow.