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A private matter for Zuckerberg

Has Facebook boss seen the light on user privacy?

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Did anyone else do a double-take last week when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg uttered the following four words to an audience at the company’s developer conference: “The future is private.”

That’s right – Zuckerberg, CEO of a company that has been at the centre of a number of political storms about its misuse of private user data over the past few years, was suddenly telling everyone – well, not everyone, but he knew it would get out to a wider audience – that Facebook had experienced a change of heart (did someone actually manage to find it?) and had been converted to the cause of user privacy.

Kudos to the company boss for acknowledging that his pledge was unlikely to be taken at face value, given Facebook’s past (mis)conduct. “I get that a lot of people aren’t sure we’re serious about this,” he said. “We don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well and starting a new chapter for our product.”

I’m guessing that Paul said something similar after his conversion on the road to Damascus but, nevertheless, there must have been an anxious moment for the first Christian he encountered after he saw the light as to whether Paul was “committed to doing this [Christianity] well” or just spoofing.

Zuckerberg claimed he was outlining “a major shift in how we run this company – we believe that, for the future, people want a privacy-focused social platform”.

All of these statements follow up – and echo – a blog post he published on Facebook at the beginning of March when he outlined his “privacy vision” for the company. “As a society, we have an opportunity to set out where we stand, to decide how we value private communications, and who gets to decide how long and where data should be stored,” he wrote.

This is all great-sounding stuff, but it does raise an important question: if Zuckerberg is sincere, how will Facebook make money in the future? And will it be radically different from the way it makes money today? It will be interesting to see how the company answers those questions.

Judging by the reaction to the blog post and his comments, we have to assume that most market watchers and shareholders don’t think there is any significant threat to the way in which Facebook makes money.

A number of people have pointed out that Facebook’s dramatic shift to supporting privacy may have something to do with the looming threat of government and regulatory action against its current business practices. Cynics would argue that the two are probably not unconnected.

It is interesting to compare the announcements at Facebook to a similarly dramatic transformation when Michael Dell revealed the company that bore his name was launching a formal partner operation in late 2007, after 23 years of mocking and disparaging indirect sales.

In the same week that Zuckerberg was telling Facebook developers that the future was private, it was revealed that Dell Technologies’ channel grew by 17% in 2018 – faster than overall company growth – and contributed more than 50% of the company’s overall revenues globally.

Dell used the opportunity of the company’s Global Partner Summit in Las Vegas to reveal that “eight out of 10 new opportunities” involved channel partners and to tell them that he was “greatly appreciative of the partnerships and trust and relationships we built together”.

Will Facebook achieve a similarly dramatic transformation? Time will tell. If Zuckerberg’s Facebook timeline asks him in a year’s time: “What’s on your mind?”, will his reply still be “Privacy”?

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