WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the social media company’s plans for a “privacy-focused” future Tuesday, but experts say it may take more than reliable encrypted private messaging to earn back the confidence of disillusioned users.
Speaking at the F8 developers’ conference in San Jose, Zuckerberg detailed changes ahead for mobile and desktop versions of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp aimed at providing “the best private messaging experience by far.” The platforms will emphasize private interactions with individuals and communities and offer new e-commerce features, among other changes.
“I believe that the future is private,” Zuckerberg said, adding that he wants Facebook’s platforms to serve as both a digital public square and a private living room for customers.
Going beyond new features and apps, he positioned this privacy focus as a fundamental change in how the company operates. This effort is guided by six principles: private interactions, encryption, reduced permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage.
“We don’t have all the answers for how this is going to work yet,” Zuckerberg acknowledged.
The plan laid out by Zuckerberg will take years to implement fully, but users will get the first taste of it right away with the launch of an overhauled Facebook app. A new Facebook desktop app and a faster Messenger app are slated for release later this year.
“I think we’ve shown time and again as a company that we can do what it takes to evolve and build the products that people want,” he said.
Additional features on the horizon for Facebook’s platforms include:
Zuckerberg’s comments Tuesday echoed points he has made in other public statements recently.
“Public social networks will continue to be very important in people's lives -- for connecting with everyone you know, discovering new people, ideas and content, and giving people a voice more broadly,” he wrote in a note to customers in March. “People find these valuable every day, and there are still a lot of useful services to build on top of them. But now, with all the ways people also want to interact privately, there's also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that's focused on privacy first.”
Zuckerberg’s vision for the future appears intended in part to eclipse a turbulent recent past in which the company’s data-sharing practices fell under intense international scrutiny. Facebook has been accused of collecting and sharing user data without consent, including a case where data firm Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest information on millions of users without their knowledge.
Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress on this and other issues in April 2018, defending Facebook’s policies, apologizing for the breach of trust, and rejecting claims of political bias. Amid a series of controversies and underwhelming earnings, the company suffered the greatest single-day loss of any public stock ever on July 26, 2018, losing more than $119 billion in market valuation.
Facebook’s newfound focus on protecting privacy may be inconsistent with the inherently public nature of social media, but experts say it is merely a reflection of where internet users are spending their time.
“You have to make product customers want,” said Nick Bowman, an associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University and editor of Communication Research Reports. “The excitement around having a space online that Myspace started for people over time has worn off.”
As people grow more aware of real and perceived threats to their privacy on social media, they are seeking other outlets for communication. To continue growing, Facebook must give users a reason to stay on its platforms.
“If customers only see Facebook as a place to brag about their kids or talk about ‘Game of Thrones,’ there’s only so much of that you can do,” Bowman said.
Dave Chatterjee, a business strategist and associate professor of management information systems at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, noted younger audiences are gravitating toward services like Snapchat that prioritize private messaging and ephemeral posting. In his speech Tuesday, Zuckerberg seemed to recognize the appeal of those features, but it is not clear replicating them will be enough to win over users.
“I think the millennials and the next generation don’t consider being on Facebook cool anymore,” Chatterjee said.
Regaining users’ trust remains an ongoing challenge for Facebook, and the success of any new private messaging tools will hinge on whether users believe their content is truly protected. Zuckerberg acknowledged the company’s less-than-inspiring track record Tuesday, but he insisted end-to-end encryption will be used to prevent anyone from seeing messages without permission.
“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure we’re serious about this. I know we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it mildly,” he said.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this month found 60% of Americans do not trust Facebook with their data, and more than half view social media in a negative light. Eight in ten respondents said social media is a waste of time, 57% said it divides Americans, and 55% said it does more to spread lies than the truth.
“Facebook is like a second home to a lot of people,” Chatterjee said. “If you want to be treated as a second home, then provide that security, that trust that you associate with home.”
Facebook has a clear interest in being seen as serious about privacy, but the company may need to prove itself to users to convince them their data will not be breached or shared without permission.
“My question is, are you genuinely interested in providing privacy and is there a way you can ensure customers you’re taking every step to protect their privacy?” Chatterjee said.
Infringing on users’ privacy is only one concern that has undermined Facebook’s reputation in recent years. The platform’s handling of political advertising and propaganda continues to raise questions among those who fear the spread of misinformation on social media influenced the outcome of the 2016 election, and it has instituted new rules to track political ads more closely.
Policing hate speech—another goal social media platforms have long struggled with—could also be complicated further if users can circulate offensive posts through encrypted, private messages.
“If you’re going to promise privacy, that somewhat runs counter to any responsibilities you might have to monitor for inappropriate information,” Bowman said, though he also observed private messages would likely have less reach and impact than public ones do.
Last week, Facebook released quarterly earnings data for the first quarter of 2019, revealing that it expects to face a $3 billion to $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission for violating users’ data privacy. Despite the various controversies swirling around the company, it saw an 8% increase in daily and monthly active users over the first quarter of 2018.
"We had a good quarter and our business and community continue to grow," Zuckerberg said in a statement at the time. "We are focused on building out our privacy-focused vision for the future of social networking and working collaboratively to address important issues around the internet."
Bowman was unsurprised to see Facebook begin to bounce back from its scandals, likening them to car crashes on the highway. Drivers may slow down or get upset, but they keep using the road.
“It’s such a part of the modern social infrastructure that I don’t think we’re willing to be or interested in being supremely angry at it,” he said.
Zuckerberg is hoping that continues to be the case for years to come, and he seems convinced rebuilding his apps and websites from the ground up with increased attention to privacy is the key to success.
“This is about building the kind of future that we want to live in,” Zuckerberg said Tuesday.