Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is fond of suggesting that all the criticism of his globe-spanning social media empire comes from either the misinformed or the malicious. In fact, Facebook is really all about protecting the privacy of its users! That’s the line he took in a Wednesday interview with Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain, CNBC reported.
In the interview, Zuckerberg acknowledges that Facebook’s “innovator in privacy” status is “certainly not the mainstream view,” which one might characterize as certainly an understatement. He argued that Facebook, which has a business model founded on vacuuming up as much data about its users as possible, is really just making strides in providing the public secure communications technologies:
“Thinking about Facebook as an innovator in privacy is certainly not the mainstream view,” Zuckerberg said during the taped conversation, which was released publicly on Wednesday. “But going back to the very first thing that we did, making it so Harvard students could communicate in a way that they had some confidence that their content and information would be shared with only people within that community, there was no way that people had to communicate stuff at that scale but not have it either be just completely public or just as small as it had been before.”
This is beyond laughable: One of Facebook’s biggest controversies in the last year, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, happened precisely because the social media giant let app developers harvest vast amounts of data on millions of users without their knowledge or consent. The co-founder of secure chat service and Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp, Jan Koum, departed the company last year amid concerns Zuckerberg and crew planned to water down its end-to-end encryption to mine more user data.
“When we talk about privacy, I think a lot of the questions are often about privacy policies and legal or policy type things,” Zuckerberg said. “But I actually think there is another element of this that’s really fundamental, which is that people want tools that give them new contexts to communicate and that’s also fundamentally about giving people power through privacy, not just not violating privacy.”
Reminder that Facebook builds secret databases of users’ contact information, including stuff users never willingly handed over. It also tracks the web activities of people who have logged out of their accounts and even non-users.
It distributed an app, Onavo, that it advertised as a virtual private network, a type of service that ostensibly shields users’ web traffic from external scrutiny. Onavo instead monitored devices to send usage information directly to Facebook. It also paid teenagers to install an Onavo-like app on their phones so it could track their behavior with nearly limitless permissions.
“All of the success that Facebook has had, this is kind of a counterintuitive thing, has been because we’ve given people new private or semi-private ways to communicate things that they wouldn’t have had before,” he said.
Claiming an insight is “counterintuitive” is a time-honored method of suggesting it is actually much smarter and thus truer than a different conclusion, but that does not make it true. Facebook is successful because it sells a massive amount of online ads, a massively lucrative and growing market—Facebook’s share of the U.S. digital ad market is expected to rise to 22.1 percent in 2019, according to AdWeek, part of a functional duopoly it shares with Google. It’s also been accused of monopolistic behavior and stealing features from upstart competitors to fuel its own growth.
If Facebook’s success is based on privacy, then it’s curious that the vast majority of its users have no idea how its targeted advertising business works, according to Pew Research Center surveys, and slightly over half reported being “not very or not at all comfortable” about the insights into their behavior and interests the platform had gathered.
In any case, it’s clear that Facebook and its executives are spooked by plummeting user trust surveys—and they’re deploying all their best rhetorical Möbius loops and repetitive buzzwords to shove the genie back in the bottle. It won’t change anything, but at least they’re innovating new ways of justifying themselves all the time.