Look Past The Facebook Redesign And The Future Is Totally Not Private
Mark Zuckerberg is stuck on repeat. “Even if our record on privacy were perfect, I think many people would still rightfully question how their information was protected,” the Facebook CEO said in November 2011. The apology came after the US Federal Trade Commission found Facebook had “deceived users” by saying what they shared would be private.
Fast-forward the best part of a decade and little has improved. As the company kicked off its annual F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg was still apologising. “I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” he said, almost laughing as the words came out of his mouth. He pledged his commitment changing Facebook – but, really Facebook isn’t changing much at all. Days before the conference, the company admitted it would have to spend between $3 billion and $5 billion for violating the very privacy promises it made with the FTC in 2011.
But, for Zuck, everything is fine. Facebook made $15.08 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter and his plan to transform the company shows a clear way forward after more than a year of scandals that have damaged Facebook’s reputation if not its bottom line.
In the coming days, Facebook will be given a facelift. The redesign, called FB5, has neater looking profiles, new tabs along the top of the homepage and is designed to keep up with modern web aesthetics. Posts appearing in the Facebook newsfeed will have rounded edges and more empty space around them. In navigation bars on the right and left-hand sides there are cleaner menus, giving access to groups and contacts. And there’s a new dark mode.
But the bigger part of Zuckerberg’s plan is to respond to how people are actually behaving online. Gone are the days of everyone sharing every photo, video and thought on newsfeed. (In contrast: at F8 a new dating feature called Secret Crush was announced. It lets users list nine friends who they would like to date.)
Pew Research Data from September 2018 revealed 42 per cent of Facebook users in the US had taken a break from the main platform after the Cambridge Analytical scandal. Now an increasing amount of online social interaction is taking place in private, in smaller groups on private messaging apps. And handily, Facebook owns two of them: WhatsApp and Messenger. Instagram, too, is being rolled into the company’s headline-grabbing pivot to privacy.
After The New York Times reported in January that Facebook was planning to merge the technical infrastructure behind Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, Zuckerberg penned an essay saying he now, truly, wants Facebook to have a "privacy-focused vision” for messaging.
To this end, more encryption is coming. At F8 Zuckerberg confirmed that Messenger, which has more than 1.3 billion monthly active users, will use end-to-end encryption by default. The approach was first adopted by WhatsApp in 2016. Introducing end-to-end encryption means that Facebook won’t be able to see the messages, photos, and links that users send across its messaging apps. The added privacy bonus plays a large part in why Facebook hasn’t been able to generate any real profits from WhatsApp since it purchased it.
But if Facebook is to be believed, it doesn’t really lose anything financially by introducing end-to-end encryption across all of its apps. It will still make most of its money from ads. In a recent interview with WIRED, Zuckerberg said it isn’t “really using” the content of messages to target adverts.
“So it’s not like building a system and making it end-to-end encrypted and now we can’t see the messages is really going to hurt ads that much because of the way we were already thinking about that,” he said. The future might be private, but Facebook is still a data-hungry advertising behemoth.
For Facebook, everything is an opportunity to collect personal data about users. At F8, Zuckerberg also announced Instagram would be getting more shopping features directly within the app and WhatsApp’s experimental payments system would be expanded. They’re both more ways to collect data – and lock people into Facebook’s family of apps. When asked by an investor whether the company’s future business model was in e-commerce or advertising, Zuckerberg said there’s no difference. “Between advertising and commerce, it’s really a continuous spectrum and they’re not two different things, right?”
What will hurt Facebook’s revenue is if people stop seeing as many adverts. This has nothing to do with end-to-end encryption. Crucially, the company has now found a way to serve people more ads even if they swap endlessly scrolling through social media feeds in favour of chatting privately in messaging apps. Facebook’s not to secret weapon? Stories.
The FB5 overhaul puts Stories at the forefront of the main Facebook app. Ever since Facebook nabbed Stories from Snapchat – a feed of images, text and videos which vanish after 24 hours – it’s seen huge growth. Stories in WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted, but that doesn’t really matter when it comes to serving ads.
In the company’s most recent earnings calls, Zuckerberg revealed how important Stories are for advertising revenue. “Stories are an increasingly important growth opportunity,” he said. The Stories in Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp all have more than 500 million daily users – and more than three million companies have advertised on Stories to date. The ads are cheaper as people tap past them quickly but the format helped to increase the number of advertising impressions by 32 per cent across Facebook’s business in the most recent quarter.
But this is where Facebook’s pivot to privacy starts to unravel. Adding end-to-end encryption improves user privacy, but only in one context. The company’s data sharing problems haven’t stemmed from what’s happened in private chats. Instead, they’ve been focussed around the colossal amount of deeply personal information Facebook already had about users, plus how this has been handled and shared.
It’s something that Facebook has yet to properly address. The Facebook Pixel still follows you around the web (even if you delete Facebook) and targeted advertising is still its core business model.
In the last few months alone Facebook has been caught using phone numbers given to it for security purposes to target ads and it took a lawsuit from the US department of housing to stop Facebook allowing ads to be targeted by location, age, race or gender. All things the department considered would be discriminatory when applied to the housing and rental sector.
Just before 2018’s F8 conference, in the middle of Zuckerberg’s apology tour of the US Congress and Senate, he announced a new feature coming to Facebook: clear history. Working like the clear history option in web browsers it would wipe people’s data clean. Twelve months later and the feature still hasn’t launched – nor did Zuckerberg mention it during his 2019 F8 keynote. The reason for the delay? It will hurt Facebook’s ability to target ads.