Mark Zuckerberg Is Trying to Play You — Again

Facebook’s promise to build a “privacy-focused platform” is little more than a hollow reaction to recent PR disasters.

The silhouette of Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and co-founder of Facebook Inc., watches a demonstration during the Oculus Connect 5 product launch event in San Jose, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Facebook unveiled a wireless virtual-reality headset called Oculus Quest, an attempt to help popularize the developing technology with a more mainstream audience. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg watches a demonstration during the Oculus Connect 5 product launch event in San Jose, Calif., on Sept. 26, 2018.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
If you click enough times through the website of Saudi Aramco, the largest oil producer in the world, you’ll reach a quiet section called “Addressing the climate challenge.” In this part of the website, the fossil fuel monolith claims, “Our contributions to the climate challenge are tangible expressions of our ethos, supported by company policies, of conducting our business in a way that addresses the climate challenge.” This is meaningless, of course — as is the announcement Mark Zuckerberg made today about his newfound “privacy-focused vision for social networking.” Don’t be fooled by either.

Like Saudi Aramco, Facebook inhabits a world in which it is constantly screamed at, with good reason, for being a contributor to the world’s worsening state. Writing a vague blog post, however, is far easier than completely restructuring the way your enormous corporation does business and reckoning with the damage it’s caused.

Promising to someday soon forfeit to your ability to eavesdrop on over 2 billion people doesn’t exactly make you eligible for sainthood in 2019.

And so here we are: “As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” Zuckerberg writes in his road-to-Damascus revelation about personal privacy. The roughly 3,000-word manifesto reads as though Facebook is fundamentally realigning itself as a privacy champion — a company that will no longer track what you read, buy, see, watch, and hear in order to sell companies the opportunity to intervene in your future acts. But, it turns out, the new “privacy-focused” Facebook involves only one change: the enabling of end-to-end encryption across the company’s instant messaging services. Such a tech shift would prevent anyone, even Facebook, outside of chat participants from reading your messages.

That’s it.

Although the move is laudable — and will be a boon for dissident Facebook chatters in countries where government surveillance is a real, perpetual risk — promising to someday soon forfeit to your ability to eavesdrop on over 2 billion people doesn’t exactly make you eligible for sainthood in 2019. It doesn’t help that Zuckerberg’s post is completely absent of details beyond a plan to implement these encryption changes “over the next few years” — which is particularly silly considering Facebook has yet to implement privacy features promised in the wake of its previous mega-scandals.

“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform,” reads Zuckerberg’s awakening. Count me into “many people,” just like I’m a skeptic of Saudi Aramco’s attempt to pre-empt criticism: “For some, the idea of an oil and gas company positively contributing to the climate challenge is a contradiction. We don’t think so.”

The skepticism of Facebook is warranted. To pick just one of many examples, the company, as The Intercept recently reported, is involved behind the scenes in fighting attempts to pass more stringent privacy laws in California.

What’s more, this is a dramatic 3,000-word opus, but only about one new privacy feature, to be released at some unknown future point. On the other hand, Facebook has a long history to consider: It’s a company whose business model relies entirely on worldwide data mining. Facebook may someday offer end-to-end chats between WhatsApp and Messenger users — which would be great! — but there’s no sign the company would ever expand such encryption beyond instant messages, because it would destroy the company. For everything Facebook protects with end-to-end encryption, that’s one less thing Facebook can comb for behavioral data, consumer preferences, and so forth.

Your chats may be secure, but that will do virtually nothing to change how Facebook follows and monitors your life, on and offline. Facebook could, say, encrypt the contents of your profile or your photo albums so that no one but your friends could decrypt that information — but then how would they sell ads against it?

The unblogged truth, which Zuckerberg knows as well as anyone else, is that a “privacy-focused vision for social networking” looks nothing like Facebook; more to the point, it would resemble Facebook’s negative image. The company will wave its arms around this “announcement” and point to it whenever its next privacy screw-up occurs — likely sometime later today.

Don’t mistake this attempt at pantomiming contrition and techno-progress as anything more than theater. And don’t mistake a long blog post about privacy for anything more than many, many words from a man who knows he’s in trouble.

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