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Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has announced plans to transform Facebook into a privacy-focused communications platform, which some critics believe is imperative for its survival.
Although Facebook’s financial and user numbers published in January appear to indicate that the Cambridge Analytic data sharing scandal and a growing catalogue of privacy failings are not impacting the business, the company chief finally appears to be taking seriously criticism from regulators and rights groups seriously.
There is also evidence that public views on Facebook are changing, with a recently-published survey of 2,000 UK consumers showing that 83% believe Facebook should be regulated, supporting the view of MPs who think action is needed to curb the power of the social media firm.
“I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms,” Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post, acknowledging that Facebook does not currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.
Although public networks will continue to be important, he said many people prefer to communicate privately and that this presents an opportunity to build a “simpler platform that is focused on privacy first” that includes private messaging and stories.
“I believe 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,” said Zuckerberg.
His vision is to build a platform that has secure, private messaging at its core, and then to layer on top of that calls, video chat, stories, payments, commerce and other private services.
This privacy-focused platform, said Zuckerberg will be built around the principles of private interactions, encryption, less permanence, safety, interoperability and secure data storage.
“Over the next few years, we plan to rebuild more of our services around these ideas,” he said, adding that Facebook will is committed to consulting with experts and discussing the best way forward.
“This will take some time, but we're not going to develop this major change in our direction behind closed doors. We're going to do this as openly and collaboratively as we can because many of these issues affect different parts of society.”
Zuckerberg said he expects future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network. “We're focused on making both of these apps faster, simpler, more private and more secure, including with end-to-end encryption.
“We then plan to add more ways to interact privately with your friends, groups, and businesses. If this evolution is successful, interacting with your friends and family across the Facebook network will become a fundamentally more private experience.”
A note on encryption
In a note on encryption, Zuckerberg said end-to-end encryption is an important tool in developing a privacy-focused social network because it protects users from intrusions by hackers, criminals, over-reaching governments and even operators of the social network.
However, he said there are “real safety concerns” to address before Facebook can implement end-to-end encryption across all of its messaging services.
“Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things. When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion. We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook is working to improve its ability to identify and stop bad actors by detecting patterns of activity or through other means. “But we face an inherent tradeoff because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.”
Finding the right ways to protect both privacy and safety is something societies have historically grappled with, he said, adding that Facebook will consult with safety experts, law enforcement and governments on the best ways to implement safety measures.
“We'll also need to work together with other platforms to make sure that as an industry we get this right. The more we can create a common approach, the better,” said Zuckerberg. “On balance, I believe working towards implementing end-to-end encryption for all private communications is the right thing to do.”
Over the next year and beyond, he said there are a lot more details and tradeoffs to work through related to each of the principles he outlined.
“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.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook will work towards a world where people can speak privately and live freely knowing that their information will only be seen by who they want to see it and will not stick around forever.
While some commentators see the announcement as a sign that Facebook leadership is finally recognising what users want, the planned changes have not been welcomed by everyone.
Some critics see the proposed changes as a way of enabling Facebook to abandon its responsibilities, according to the BBC, because if Facebook is more private and temporary, it may be more difficult to hold the social network accountable for any perceived misdeeds.
Those with a more cynical view believe Zuckerberg has simply recognised a business opportunity and is seeking to pursue it, while at the same time seeking to avoid falling foul of new and emerging privacy legislation around the world, realising that failure to do so could ultimately see Facebook fail.
It recently emerged that the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) alone opened 10 statutory inquiries into Facebook and other Facebook-owned platforms in the first seven months since the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force on 25 May 2018.
In another recent revelation, it emerged that Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, asked George Osborne while he was the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer to be “even more active and vocal” in his concerns about European data protection legislation, and to “really help shape the proposals”, during a lobbying campaign to influence EU policy.
The meeting took place at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2013 as top Facebook executives sought to influence politicians and policy-makers over European plans to introduce tougher privacy and data protection laws, a Computer Weekly report revealed.
Sandberg also sought assurances from Canada’s minister of industry, Christian Paradis, over embryonic plans by the company to build a datacentre in the country, according to company documents seen by Computer Week and The Observer.