MENLO PARK, CA Amidst increasing concerns about privacy and media manipulation on the platform, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed plans for a major strategy shift for the social media giant, with the company pivoting to become “a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.”
In a long blog post posted on Wednesday, Zuckerberg said the new Facebook would be built around core concepts of private interactions, encryption, permanence, safety, interoperability which will be incorporated across the platform’s portfolio of applications, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because 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,” Zuckerberg wrote in the Facebook post.
The pivot includes increased plans for interoperability among Facebook’s applications, such as allowing an Instagram user to securely send a digital message to someone on WhatsApp without even anyone from Facebook able to access the contents of the message.
“People should be comfortable being themselves and should not have to worry about what they share coming back to hurt them later,” Zuckerberg wrote. “People’s private communications should be secure … People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share.”
Facebook has come under increasing scrutiny in the last year, after several high profile hacks and the apparent use of Facebook to manipulate elections, including the 2016 Presidential election in the U.S. and the Brexit referendum in the UK.
The company has also drawn criticism for its willingness to work within the constraints of countries with poor records on human rights.
Zuckerberg touched on this thorny subject in his post, writing: “In the last year, I’ve spoken with dissidents who’ve told me encryption is the reason they are free, or even alive. Governments often make unlawful demands for data, and while we push back and fight these requests in court, there’s always a risk we’ll lose a case — and if the information isn’t encrypted we’d either have to turn over the data or risk our employees being arrested if we failed to comply. This may seem extreme, but we’ve had a case where one of our employees was actually jailed for not providing access to someone’s private information even though we couldn’t access it since it was encrypted.”
However, In September last year, Facebook plans to spend $1bn to build a new data center in Singapore, a country whose political climate Human Rights Watch described as “stifling” with tightly controlled restrictions on public assembly, political speech, and no protections for LGTBQ citizens.
It remains to be seen how Facebook would react to pressure from a government like Singapore when its major capital investments were put at risk for safeguarding a user’s privacy.
“Reading Zuckerberg’s words about on secure data storage, one would think Singapore would be the last country in Asia where Facebook should build a storage center. All he and his staff had to do is talk to the besieged human rights movement in the country to learn how repressive the environment is for freedom of expression,” Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robinson told Business Insider.
“As for security of information, suffice to say that Singapore has such intrusive, persistent surveillance that it’s one of the countries where we must take special precautions when we go there. No one who cares about human rights; democratic, grass-roots organizing against corporations, migrant worker empowerment, LGBT rights, or a host of other rights issues should feel comfortable that Facebook is building a data center in Singapore,” Robinson added.
More fundamentally for Facebook, questions remain about how real the new focus on privacy is. Facebook’s core business model is developing detailed profiles of users and their preferences to enable advertisers to accurately target marketing. Even with the new privacy features the company promises, they are unlikely to step back from their profitable advertising business. Even if the company can no longer skim encrypted user messages and private posts for keywords, user metadata will still be visible to both Facebook and likely, its advertising partners.