California: Can Facebook really become a privacy-friendly platform?

Photo by  Kai Brame  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kai Brame on Unsplash

Question: Would be naive to believe that Mark Zuckerberg built a social network that somehow morphed into what is basically a surveillance system?

Answer: Probably, yes. Surely, it was as deliberate in its development as Zuckerberg’s latest plans to reshape the company to provide messaging services that serve as “fortresses of privacy”.

Rather than simply being a network that connects people who want to ‘share’ their lives with the multitude, Facebook is aiming to get smaller groups of users to engage in encrypted conversations that cannot be read by Facebook, nor any other outsider.

Now, whilst it might be considered ever-so-slightly cynical to suggest that this is part of a ploy, to help Facebook deflect the attention of government regulators, Zuckerberg insists, that the company's messaging business is designed to complement, not replace its core businesses, which makes commercial sense when considering the billions of dollars in advertising revenues.

The tech giant also plans to make messages disappear automatically, shadowing a feature already provided by rival messaging platform, Snapchat. The is believed to limit the inherent risks associated with social media posts that follow people around for the rest of their lives.

There is no doubt that Zuckerberg knows better than anyone, that the messaging market is growing faster than Facebook’s core social networking business and sees an opportunity to steer his ship into more lucrative waters.

However, Facebook is no stranger to the inevitable storms that can occur. The company has weathered more than the odd squall during the past two years, mostly for successive lapses of data privacy, but also for the spread of disinformation, allowing targeted propaganda campaigns, plus a tsunami of hate speech and abuse. Last year, Zuckerberg was subjected to a two-day interrogation by Congress.

So, as far as “privacy fortresses” go, Facebook needs to prove that it really means business this time around.

Now, encryption technology could protect private conversations and, if Zuckerberg’s claim that even Facebook will not be able to read messages is true, this could actually create another set of problems.

Forrester Research analyst, Fatemeh Khatibloo, commented, “[security is] an "admirable goal, …I'm just not sure it addresses the bigger issues Facebook is facing right now.”

Facebook has grown into the behemoth it is today by literally hoovering up people's personal data in every conceivable way. The collected data is pulled apart and rearranged to fire targeted ads back at the resulting “target audience”. Some researchers say that anything that adversely impacts that machine poses a significant threat to Facebook’s share price and position in its prime marketplace.

Reportedly, Zuckerberg has been busy communicating some of the proposed changes to the company’s investors for the past six months. However, in a recent blogpost, he also explained the idea to the two billion+ Facebook service users the first time. Importantly, these users also look at Facebook’s ads, which, according to the research firm eMarketer, are expected to generate $67 billion in revenue this year.

If Zuckerberg’s plans come to fruition, Facebook will also show similar ads on the “privacy-protected” messaging service.

During a recent Associated Press interview, Zuckerberg said:

"If you think about your life, you probably spend more time communicating privately than publicly,…The overall opportunity here is a lot larger than what we have built in terms of Facebook and Instagram."

However, analysts and critics say this is far from proven. Facebook has seen only limited success when attempting to show ads in its Messenger app. Moreover, the company has not yet tested the concept in WhatsApp since it bought the platform back in 2014.

eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson reportedly said:

"There are some huge unknowns about how successful Facebook is going to be rolling advertising into a more private messaging environment,"

Many critics remain convinced that Facebook has become so powerful, that it could pose as a threat to democracy, as well as to people's privacy - and that it needs to be reined in by tougher regulations or even a corporate breakup.

But such action would not be without problems. Unraveling the Facebook empire could easily be hampered if Zuckerberg successfully stitches together the firm’s messaging services behind an encrypted wall.

By amalgamating the three services Facebook could build more comprehensive profiles on all of its users. Businesses are already targeting Facebook and Instagram users, and WhatsApp is highly likely to be next on the list for marketing campaigns.

In the past, messaging apps have hastened the spread of fake news and unfounded rumors, sometimes with serious consequences. Last year, a report published by Oxford University researchers discovered evidence of widespread disinformation on chat applications such as WhatsApp. One particularly example involved accusations by the Indian government, which accused WhatsApp of fueling rumors that provoked lynchings and mob violence, wounding dozens.

According to The Associated Press, the response by Facebook was to restrict the number of groups to which messages could be forwarded - and labeling forwarded messages as such. Earlier this month Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook needs to protect both privacy and safety as it encrypted messaging services. However, he noted to an "inherent trade-off" between security and safety, simply because Facebook won't be able to read encrypted conversations. And in some cases, Facebook could allow some content to automatically disappear in a day or two, as if it were a fleeting mirage.

Zuckerberg told AP:

"Some people want to store their messages forever and some people think having large collections of photos or messages is a liability as much as it is an asset, …Figuring out the balance is a really important one."

Sources: Associated Press

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