Mark Zuckerberg’s pivot to data privacy

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In a blog post last week, Mark Zuckerberg outlined his new “privacy-focused” vision for the future of Facebook. This new vision would be a major pivot towards privacy for a company not historically known for adequately protecting the privacy of its users.

Zuckerberg himself acknowledged in his post that Facebook doesn’t “currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.” But the fact that he is making a bold statement with a concrete and workable game plan to shift his company’s focus towards veritably protecting users’ privacy is an encouraging step in the right direction.

In the wake of the recent and embarrassing string of privacy scandals, data breaches, and congressional testimonies, Mr. Zuckerberg’s announcement couldn’t have come soon enough. The public has been rapidly losing trust in the platform in response to the company’s recent privacy missteps, spawning the #DeleteFacebook movement along with contributing to a significant slowdown in user growth. Zuckerberg certainly knew something needed to change.

While public communication and sharing ideas and opinions to a broad audience on social media will always have its place, keeping private online dialogue truly private over social networks is becoming ever more important for users. Zuckerberg likens the difference to public communication in a town square versus private conversations in a living room.

Public discourse absolutely has and will continue to have its place online, but private online conversations must be protected and safeguarded as private at all costs. Zuckerberg recognizes the significance of this shift of preference toward private interaction and explains that he believes “the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won't stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.”

Mr. Zuckerberg outlines in his blog post six core principles that will help Facebook realize this future: private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage.

If executed effectively, this would mean that users will have confidence in Facebook’s ability to truly keep their private interactions private and secure; have the peace of mind that they can have control over what posts and what data are stored on the network and for how long; have faith in Facebook’s capacity to keep them safe on the network; have the ability to communicate securely across Facebook’s entire suite of social platforms; and have the expectation that the company will keep any personal data stored securely and fully protected from unauthorized access.

Zuckerberg appreciates that all this will not happen overnight and will require a great deal of work and expert guidance. He explains that some of the work has already begun, but that “over the next year and beyond, there are a lot more details and tradeoffs to work through related to each of these principles. A lot of this work is in the early stages, and we are committed to consulting with experts, advocates, industry partners, and governments -- including law enforcement and regulators -- around the world to get these decisions right.”

Some of these tradeoffs he speaks of may come at the expense of investors and advertisers. Facebook relies heavily on advertising revenue, and the implementation of end-to-end encryption along with giving users more control over the collection of their data will limit the effectiveness of targeted advertisements and will thus potentially become a cause of concern for investors.

However, as Mr. Zuckerberg also points out in his post, privacy allows individuals to be themselves and communicate in a more genuine and natural manner. The unease of having one’s privacy potentially infringed upon, be it intentionally or unintentionally, substantively alters human behavior, stifles authentic dialogue, and obstructs progress. This is why privacy should always be preserved as a fundamental human right, no matter what the platform, or the cost.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision for a privacy-first approach to social networking indicates that he is at long last ready to make certain tradeoffs that are in the interest of user privacy rather than purely in the interest of his company’s bottom line. Maybe it’s because he knows that regaining public trust in his product is absolutely critical at this juncture.

In any case, now was the time for him to finally stand up and make a coherent and actionable statement in favor of user privacy...and it was important for it to come from the top.

The way in which the company responded to and addressed privacy incidents in the past was largely uninspiring and unconvincing. It was more of a shoot first and ask questions later type of approach, in which a privacy incident would occur and be invariably followed by a half-hearted apology and a hollow promise to do better in the future.

Somehow, Zuckerberg’s announcement this week seemed different, more earnest. Time will tell, but perhaps this time we can finally count on Facebook to do what is necessary to truly protect the data and privacy of its users.

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