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Mark Zuckerberg Announces Facebook’s Pivot to Privacy

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For the last few years, Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, has been posting occasional essays about the future of his company. The most recent, published on Wednesday, outlines “a privacy-focused vision for social networking.” “Public social networks will continue to be very important in people’s lives,” Zuckerberg writes. But “the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services.” He hopes to build such platforms, and expand the ones the company already owns. He isn’t proposing to dismantle Facebook as it currently exists. The Facebook to come, he explains, will facilitate “private interactions”; it will feature “reduced permanence,” with content disappearing automatically, Snapchat-style; it will allow for messages, video chats, monetary transactions, and “other kinds of private services” that are encrypted “end-to-end.” (This type of encryption “prevents anyone—including us—from seeing what people share,” Zuckerberg explains.) Zuckerberg wants to supplement “the platforms we’ve already built to help people share and connect more openly” with “platforms for private sharing.” The idea is to let you use Facebook in secret.

The move towards privacy seems designed to respond to a number of problems. To some extent, it responds to Facebook’s content-moderation problem: if a conversation that violates the company’s “community guidelines” is encrypted, such that even Facebook’s software can’t read it, then the company can’t be expected to expunge it. It responds to the Ralph Northam-yearbook problem (“People want to know that what they share won’t come back to hurt them later”), since, by default, content will auto-delete. And it responds to the China problem, as Zuckerberg vows “not to build data centers in countries that have a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression.” It also attempts to address Facebook’s public-relations problem: after a scandalous year, fewer people trust the network than ever.

What it does not and cannot address is the social-media problem. That problem, essentially, is centralization. It’s extraordinary that one company—and, to an extent, one person—has the power to reshape the way that billions of people communicate, not just once but over and over again. In its original incarnation, Facebook helped turn ordinary people into broadcasters; this had predictable, desirable consequences (baby photos; gratitude challenges; rainbow-hued demonstrations of solidarity) and unpredictable, disastrous ones (harassment; anti-vaxxers; Russian trolls). Almost certainly, Facebook’s privacy initiatives will result in good and bad outcomes that are hard to predict—and those outcomes, whatever they are, will unfold at a massive, global scale, affecting societies around the world simultaneously. That scale, in itself, is a problem—one that Facebook will never solve.



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