Can sharing be private?

Fri 15 Mar 2019

For years now, Facebook has been facing flak for privacy violations. The most notorious of these was the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Under relentless pressure from regulators to tighten its privacy safeguards, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a post last week, appears to have made a 180-degree shift in what Facebook has stood for all along: from sharing and openness, to privacy and encryption.

In a 3,200-word post on Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg unveiled what he calls “a privacy-focused vision for social networking”. Facebook is a company whose very business model is built on encouraging, coaxing, and manipulating people to share more and more of their private lives. So understandably, its founder’s latest posture on privacy has struck many as little more than posturing.

In his post, Mr. Zuckerberg outlined a four-fold strategy to position privacy at the heart of Facebook’s business. First, all social media activity would be end-to-end encrypted, as WhatsApp currently is, across Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram. Second, users could post ‘ephemeral’ messages that would all get automatically get deleted unless they specified otherwise. Third, interoperability, which would enable users to seamlessly send and receive messages across WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or SMS, would be possible owing to a unification of the technological back-end of all these platforms. Many fear that this might open the gateway for massive data mining and be a way to duck anti-trust legislation. Finally, Facebook will not store data in countries that have a questionable record in protecting human rights such as privacy and free speech. This is to protect users’ privacy by ensuring that data is not “improperly accessed.”

Of these four, the most radical promise is encryption across platforms. If implemented, which many still doubt, it would mean that even Facebook cannot ‘see’ what its billions of users are sharing. As per Mr. Zuckerberg’s analogy, it also signals a shift in Facebook Inc’s centre of gravity — from the social network imagined as a town square (Facebook), where you are sharing something with all or most of your friends, to the social network imagined as your living room (such as a small WhatsApp or Messenger group), where a more intimate — and more private — sharing can take place. What happens to Facebook’s ad-based business model in such a scenario?

Mr. Zuckerberg’s answer suggests that the ‘pivot to privacy’ would itself be based on a pivot towards “payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.” He hasn’t offered a time frame for effecting this transition.

Not surprisingly, given Facebook’s long history of sacrificing privacy at the altar of Mammon, many remain sceptical. A brilliant New Yorker cartoon captured the general sentiment that greeted Mr. Zuckerberg’s proclamation. In the cartoon, Mr. Zuckerberg, speaking from a podium, announces to the world, “Facebook is changing. From now on, sharing is private. War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.”

The writer is the Social Affairs Editor of The Hindu


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