Zuckerberg’s post isn’t just a way to gin up interest in some new Facebook features. It’s a diversion, a magician’s misdirection full of red herrings. When it comes to privacy, Facebook has been getting into trouble, deflecting, apologizing, and failing to deliver on promises of meaningful privacy protections for more than a decade. And its CEO wants to distract us from that record with a few well-placed changes so we miss his dangerous inaction elsewhere. Even taking him at his word—a generosity Facebook certainly hasn’t earned—Zuckerberg’s essay shows that he fundamentally misunderstands what “privacy” means. Read more cynically, the post seems to use a narrow definition of the concept to distract us from the ways Facebook will likely continue to expand its invasion of our digital private lives for profit.
In his writing, it seems when Zuckerberg thinks about privacy, he thinks about encryption. He talks about people “interact[ing] privately” with a “shift to private, encrypted services” where “[p]eople’s private communications should be secure.” But privacy is not the same as encryption. Encryption is about making data impossible for an outsider to read and understand. Privacy is a far broader concept, covering not only the flow of information among individuals and groups, but also personal, intellectual, and sexual autonomy, and the trust necessary for social interaction. In practice, privacy is about limiting data collection, placing restrictions on who can access and manipulate user data, and minimizing or barring data from flowing to third parties. Zuckerberg mentions none of that in his essay. When he talks about encrypting the messages users send to prevent “anyone—including [Facebook]—from seeing what people share on our services,” he neglects to mention that Facebook will still be able to collect the metadata from these messages, like who individual users message and when. When he talks about interoperability, he glosses over whether the merger may require users to give up anonymity they may have on WhatsApp to comply with Facebook’s real name requirements. When he talks about a new digital living room, he conveniently leaves out the advertisers that will be invited into these spaces, too. And all the new ways platform connections will allow our information—profile data, messaging activity, clicks and hovers, interactions, GPS location, outside browsing history, and app use—to be used to help Facebook target ads in even more invasive ways.
There is no way that Facebook can provide a secure and private messaging platform and remain profitable, full stop. Its entire business model depends on collecting ever-increasing amounts ofdata about its users, using that data to predict their behavior, and then selling those predictions to advertisers.
Any claim Zuckerberg makes need to be viewed through that lens.