Mark Zuckerberg's recent blog discussing Facebook's vision to become a 'privacy-focused' platform comes just over a month after he announced its merger with Instagram and WhatsApp. The merger has raised concerns (from, amongst others, Ireland's DPC who regulate Facebook in the EU) for users' privacy across the three platforms and the sharing of data between them.

2018 was famously not Zuckerberg's year. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw data from 50 million Facebook profiles used to influence the campaigns both of Donald Trump's election team and of Vote Leave, was a wake-up call to the omnipotence of data as a commodity and power in our society. Facebook, though arguably no more than the vehicle for Cambridge Analytica's abuses, became synonymous with an unsettling reality about data and privacy.

It's no leap, then, to see Zuckerberg's blog as a PR statement, and a step towards reversing the damage. On the face of it, the post exhibits an awareness of the importance of the events of the last year as well as some commendable privacy plans. These include:

  • Better controls over who users communicate with.
  • Efforts to reduce the permanence of users' contributions.
  • Not storing data in countries with 'weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression'.
  • Better encryption.

The careful balance of honesty and vision in the post echoes the Congressional hearing called in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, in which Zuckerberg seemingly took responsibility for events, accepted that mistakes were made, and guided Senators to a transparent understanding of the platform.

Yet it's the irony of what is largely symbolic backtracking that undermines Zuckerberg's intentions in this statement. By announcing plans to become privacy-focused, Facebook signals an attempt to keep its head above water after a tidal wave of its own creation.

Framing the vision within the upcoming platform merger allows Zuckerberg to present the plans as proactive, a key facet of of Anne Cavoukian's 'privacy by design' approach that many uphold as the go-to framework for data protection. But his statement is entirely reactive.

Since its inception, Facebook has been the arbiter of the mistakes that privacy by design seeks to learn from. In its very nature it has encouraged data irresponsibility, being all about broadcasting, networks of hundreds, and an almost competitive attitude to making our lives public. It created an environment in which users unknowingly let harmless 'likes' and quizzes become a paper trail for their behaviour and psychology.

Beyond this encouragement of consensual and habitual data sharing, the documents that arose from the Six4Three lawsuit last year exhibit that discussions about monetising data were going on at Facebook as early as 2012.

Zuckerberg is right to identify a move towards curation, control, and privacy in the way we behave online. It is already beginning to manifest in Instagram which recently added their 'close friends' feature. As he puts it, there is a desire for 'the digital equivalent of the living room' rather than the 'town square'. But not only has this observation been made before, it has been so in response to everything Facebook stands for.

More than a preference or trend, what Zuckerberg identifies is a need. A need for a better, more transparent attitude to privacy than what Facebook has offered up to now. And he is not the first.

Photo by ev on Unsplash