Mark Zuckerberg promises a new privacy-obsessed Facebook

Facebook's CEO also lays out plans to connect WhatsApp and Messenger

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

In a manifesto that reads like a response to Facebook's many critics, CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined a new focus on privacy, including a plan for encrypted messaging that would also unite communication across its various apps. He also promised less data permanence on the platform famous for its oversharing users.

Zuckerberg posted the new strategy to his Facebook page Wednesday, touching on topics that the company has signaled it would address for months, like connecting its two messaging apps, WhatsApp and Messenger, so people on both platforms can interact seamlessly.

Also, following the push into Stories, the video messages that disappear in 24 hours, Facebook will develop tools that let people set time limits so that content like photos and text posts will self-destruct.

"I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms," Zuckerberg wrote. "Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks. Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication."

Facebook has faced unrelenting scrutiny on its privacy policies dating back to its founding, with governments, regulators and watchdogs questioning how the company made a fortune on the backs of people's personal information. The criticism reached a crescendo last year, with Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg being called to testify in Congress to answer for lapses like Cambridge Analytica, an outside developer that appeared to easily access data on up to 87 million Facebook users.

"I understand that many people don't think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform -- because frankly we don't currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we've historically focused on tools for more open sharing," Zuckerberg wrote. "But we've repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and Stories."

Good for business
Facebook's new goals coincide with what's best for business, says Noah Mallin, head of experience, content and sponsorships at Wavemaker, a WPP agency. By connecting WhatsApp and Messenger, Facebook will be more efficient. "Think of the cost savings," Mallin says. "Why have all separate platforms and development when it can all be unified on the back-end?"

A unified back-end helps advertising, because Facebook is selling advertisers on ads in Stories, which also bridge all the apps, appearing on WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram and Facebook.

Encryption and disappearing posts also favor Facebook; it would take pressure off Facebook to police the services if the company removes itself from storing the communications, Mallin says.

The challenges
Leading up to the post, Facebook has been developing tools to empower users -- for example, an "erase history" feature that will let people delete data Facebook stores about internet browsing and other online behaviors. Last month, Facebook released a tool that lets people claw back a message after it's been sent, erasing it from the receiving end.

In Wednesday's post, Zuckerberg also wrote about the end-to-end encryption that Facebook is developing for all messaging. "People expect their private communications to be secure and to only be seen by the people they've sent them to -- not hackers, criminals, over-reaching governments, or even the people operating the services they're using," Zuckerberg wrote.

It remains to be seen if new privacy features and policies can assuage fears about the social network. Just this week, news reports resurfaced about how the company offered people a security feature known as two-factor authentification, which required users to share their phone numbers. Then those phone numbers became part of Facebook's ad targeting options.

One immediate question, for some, was why Facebook's privacy-focused moves didn't come sooner.

"This isn't a post I expected to read, and I wish he wrote it two years ago," tweeted Alex Stamos, Facebook's former security chief. "Hopefully the external vision is reflected in internal moves to change product culture that informs thousands of product and engineering decisions per year. Turning a ship that large is difficult."

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