The Irish Times view: Mark Zuckerberg’s empty pledge

Facebook’s key encroachment on user privacy comes from its lucrative business model of gleaning detailed data on users

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg indicated the company would, over time, offer a more secure and private offering, where people could communicate using privacy-protecting encryption, and decide how long some messages or photos remain visible. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg indicated the company would, over time, offer a more secure and private offering, where people could communicate using privacy-protecting encryption, and decide how long some messages or photos remain visible. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

 

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the company would build a more “privacy-focused platform”. But his overstated and underwhelming promise will do little to address the company’s most egregious privacy incursions.

Zuckerberg indicated the company would, over time, offer a more secure and private offering, where people could communicate using privacy-protecting encryption and decide how long some messages or photos remain visible.

As Zuckerberg rightly noted, “People increasingly… want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the livingroom.” His lengthy post initially seems to promise radical changes to Facebook and the way it operates.

Facebook’s daunting problems as an enabler of fake news, bullying, secretive advertising campaigns and other socially damaging maladies are linked to its public, data-gathering platform

However, a close reading gives no evidence that Zuckerberg is actually talking about either Facebook, or Facebook-owned Instagram, when he discusses the need for these privacy supportive communication spaces.

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg: Several app developers have complained about the issue to Facebook since May. Photograph: Getty
File photograph: Getty

Instead, he carefully phrases his blog post to propose developing, and – significantly – integrating the messaging services within Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp into “a platform” with greater options for creating this digital livingroom. This is a critical distinction. While encryption, options for private and closed discussions, and time-limited content are all features to be wished for, Facebook’s primary encroachment on user privacy comes not from messages but rather its lucrative business model of gleaning detailed personal information about users from their posts, photos, hashtags, likes and comments, and then selling targeted audience access to advertisers.

Similarly, Facebook’s daunting problems as an enabler of fake news, bullying, secretive advertising campaigns and other socially damaging maladies are linked to its public, data-gathering platform. An encrypted messaging service will not resolve these issues.

In the last week, Facebook received two major reminders that many countries are alarmed at its size, its dominance, and the ways it gathers, uses and shares user data. The UK government issued a 150-page report firmly calling for stronger antitrust regulation of Facebook and other market-controlling tech giants. And, news broke that federal prosecutors in New York have opened a criminal investigation into hidden deals Facebook made with other companies, to provide access to the data of hundreds of millions of users, allegedly without always asking users for consent.

With so many jurisdictions looking at greater regulation of Facebook and other tech giants on privacy and anti-trust grounds, it’s no surprise to see Facebook begin a privacy offensive. Unfortunately, Zuckerberg’s announcement isn’t the meaningful, long-overdue shift that is actually needed.

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