The Industry

Facebook’s Awkward Pivot to Privacy

Mark Zuckerberg suddenly thinks private messaging and tight networks are the future. That’s more convenient for Facebook than it seems.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 11 in Washington.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 11 in Washington.
Leah Millis/Reuters

After 15 years of encouraging us all to share our lives with the world, Facebook has decided that the future is really about privacy. If so, that might be more convenient for Facebook than it first seems.

In a landmark 3,200-word manifesto Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out his vision for a “privacy-focused” social network—one that spans Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram as well as Facebook itself. In particular, Zuckerberg said he expects “future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network.”

People will be able to message each other across those platforms, and their communications will be encrypted end-to-end, which means even Facebook itself can’t read them. Facebook will make a habit of deleting data and won’t store it in countries that have a track record of human rights violations and privacy violations. The result, he said, will be a Facebook experience that feels less like a “town square” and more like a “living room.”

Such a sweeping change would have far-reaching implications for Facebook’s business, its users, governments, dissidents, and the media—just for starters.

• It would make Facebook less like the feed-based platform we know today and more like Snapchat—though a better analogy might be WeChat, the social app that dominates online life in China.

• It would constrain the company’s advertising business, while opening up new realms of e-commerce and in-app purchases.

• It would put China itself essentially off-limits for Facebook, closing off the world’s largest growth market while sparing the company all the headaches of trying to do business there.

• It would push some of Facebook’s biggest PR problems under a rug, such as fake news, hate speech, election interference, and harassment, which would become much harder to police—or to hold Facebook accountable for.

• And it would open new ones, creating “dark social” networks that could be havens for criminal or even terrorist activity, while giving equal shelter to everyone from dissidents to hate groups. There are also the technical challenges of how to let people share encrypted information across Facebook’s apps while keeping them distinct (and allowing people to opt out of that sharing, as Zuckerberg promises).

Two big questions now are: How serious is Facebook about this shift? And what is its main motive?

The naïve view is that Zuckerberg and company have at long last seen the light and recognized that their model of making the world “more open and connected” was inherently flawed. Persuaded at last that privacy is a precondition of free expression, they’re embracing all the criticism they’ve received from privacy and security advocates and adopting it as their new gospel. Zuckerberg encourages this interpretation in his final paragraph:

I believe we should be working towards a world where people can speak privately and live freely knowing that their information will only be seen by who they want to see it and won’t all stick around forever. If we can help move the world in this direction, I will be proud of the difference we’ve made.

Of course, the naïve view requires forgetting pretty much everything we’ve learned about Zuckerberg and Facebook over the years. They’ve shown at every turn that they value growth and dominance over privacy, security, or any other high-minded principles they might espouse when it’s convenient.

The cynical view is that Zuckerberg’s focus on privacy and encryption is largely public relations theater designed to distract from the company’s true motive: binding together its major social apps so tightly that neither users nor privacy or antitrust regulators can untangle them.

Facebook is fast becoming a target for regulators of all stripes, and one plausible direction for those regulations would be to limit how it can share users’ data and identities between Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. But Facebook may be betting that it can move faster than regulators do, head off any effort to silo or break up its social media empire, and dress it all up in a guise of virtues like privacy and security. In this view, Facebook isn’t really bent on transforming its personal data–driven advertising business so much as entrenching it.

The cynical view is more plausible than the naïve view because it’s in keeping with Facebook’s tradition of figuring out its business strategy first, then tacking on a high-flown social mission to justify it. But it risks underselling the magnitude of the shift Zuckerberg is describing—and the ways that a “pivot to privacy” might actually benefit the company’s business long-term.

There’s a third view that both takes Zuckerberg largely at his word that the company is reinventing itself and helps to explain why that might be in their long-term interests. This view recognizes that activity within the Facebook universe was already shifting toward private groups and messaging, and that Instagram’s explosive growth reflects a desire among users for more intimate settings than the news feed. At the same time, it’s the news feed that has presented Facebook with years’ worth of PR nightmares and forced it to become an arbiter of online speech, including political speech—a role it never wanted and to which it has proven poorly suited. Embracing private messaging and encrypted communications both leans into the company’s future and retreats from its fraught present. Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, called this a “judo move.”*

If this shift saves Facebook scores of unsavory headlines, it could also come with terrible consequences as its networks become havens for all sorts of illicit activities beyond the reach of law enforcement, regulators, or the media. It could also punish Facebook’s advertising business by limiting Facebook’s access to the content of its users’ messages, although there’s no reason to believe that Facebook and Instagram proper can’t continue to thrive.

In this view, the move for Facebook is not just about consolidating its existing business, but making a bold play to dominate another one—private messaging—in countries WhatsApp has not already conquered.

In a surprising moment of self-awareness, Zuckerberg’s manifesto acknowledges perhaps the biggest obstacle to this transformation:

Frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing. But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.

It’s true that Facebook has shown a remarkable capacity to evolve over the years. But privacy and security are postures that require long-term commitment, not a finger in the wind. A big pivot to privacy may well be in Facebook’s interest—but whether it’s in users’ interest to trust Facebook is another matter.

Correction, March 6, 2019: This piece originally misidentified Alex Stamos as Facebook’s former CFO. He is its former chief security officer.