Facebook is pivoting to privacy – and we should cautiously embrace it

While the pessimism around Facebook’s big announcement is justified, it’s worth being hopeful for the success of this platform overhaul. 

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If you were to hear the words “security”, “privacy”, and “reliability”, I wouldn’t know what company would immediately pop in your head. However, if you were to hear the opposite, I can guess which company would. Facebook has built a name for itself as being a go-to location for getting your data stolen, your opinions warped, and your habits tracked.

So yesterday, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s newest brand venture, it came as a little more than your average surprise. Because yesterday Facebook announced the least likely pivot anyone could have expected: a pivot to make Facebook synonymous with privacy.

In a blog post titled “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking”, Zuckerberg laid out a vision for a revamped version of Facebook and Facebook-owned platforms (WhatsApp, Instagram) where, above sharing, openness, and permanence, the platform will brand itself on ephemerality and security. The post outlines six key values that Facebook will be implementing over the next few years – private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage. All of these principles, from the floaty to the factual, are all ultimately anchored around this:

“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.

We plan to build this the way we've developed WhatsApp: focus on the most fundamental and private use case – messaging – make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.”

This, I hate to say, is an enormous deal. As I’ve written for what feels like every day of my entire life, social media companies have created a reliable trend that they will take what their users want and put it promptly in the trash. To see Facebook do the opposite – to do the logical thing of listening to what its users want and implementing those changes – bucks a trend that has existed since social media has. And the implications of Facebook doing it means that, if they pull it off, other platforms may follow suit, making some of these terrible platforms nice places for users. 

But that is only if Facebook actually does pull it off. As Casey Newton wrote in a column last night for The Verge, Facebook has a rich history of breaking grand, heavily-publicised promises, from anonymous logins to a “delete all history” function. And the optimists are few and far between. The Guardian published quotes from a series of security experts commenting on this announcement, almost all of whom said some version of “I’ll believe it when I see it”. Facebook relies on users’ openness to make money – it’s the foundation of its whole platform – and increasingly find that users get value from Facebook because it provides nostalgia (see friendship anniversaries and “on this day” pop-ups). As tech and security reporter, Sam Biddle, wrote on Twitter, “The entire company is predicated on its ability to access your data… implementing meaningful encryption across Facebook would quite literally destroy Facebook overnight.”

However, despite the pessimism, this is announcement is one we should cautiously embrace. Facebook is far from deserving of praise for this pivot which is, really, something that it really should have announced about a year ago, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke. But that said, this is a huge step for the company and, if it actually follows through, social media as a whole. If Facebook can listen to what its users want and actually implement it, than any platform can. And if it can keep Facebook afloat and undo its negative reputation, then we may be about to see an unprecedented turning point in how social media companies function.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.