Photo: Tony Avelar (AP)

To open the decade, Mark Zuckerberg defiantly announced that the age of privacy was over. Now, as we approach the decade’s end, the Facebook founder and CEO says he’s rebuilding the world’s biggest social network around privacy first.

No one really believes Zuckerberg, who laughingly joked about the company’s ever-deteriorating privacy reputation when he took the stage to open Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference in Silicon Valley on Tuesday. Zuckerberg’s message, a continuation of what feels like profoundly disconnected optimism that he’s taken to preaching recently, is that over time Facebook will embrace privacy—and prove that privacy is not completely contrary to what the company is at its core.

Advertisement

The entire event was engineered to help Facebook visibly begin a new chapter, closing out the era in which the social network became virtually synonymous with privacy failures, misinformation, white nationalist political movements, genocide and, well, you get the idea. But it remains the world’s largest social network, home to democratic movements, and a crucial player in the future of the internet. It’s now attempting to see if it can push that to the forefront and hide its dirty laundry behind a wall of “privacy” talk.

Advertisement

Facebook’s most substantial new move to a privacy-focused future is offering end-to-end encrypted messaging by default across WhatsApp (which already has it), Messenger (Zuck says it’s coming soon), and Instagram. This should mean that neither the company’s employees nor its algorithms will be able to see what’s being said in private messages any longer. Crucially, that process appears to be only at the early stages and will involve a year-long consultation with experts, governments, and law enforcement about how to implement it.

“There are real trade-offs between making your messages as secure as possible on the one hand,” Zuckerberg said, “and our ability to prevent people from doing bad things on the other hand. I really care about getting these trade-offs right.”

Advertisement

Here would be a good time to take us behind the curtains to answer a host of important questions: Who exactly is being consulted? Where are we in that timeline? What exactly is being discussed? What happens if the FBI, the top law enforcement organization in the United States and one with a long and loud track record of combating and criticizing the spread of encrypted messaging, says Facebook’s plans should stop or slow or be undermined or weakened? Will the process have any transparency?

Given Facebook’s track record, color me intensely skeptical. The company has been hiring rapidly in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., over the last year. The technologists, privacy experts, and industry veterans who go into Facebook typically go quiet once they’re inside the company’s black box.

Advertisement

Facebook’s entire business model for the last 15 has been one of surveillance. Even as of the first quarter of this year, $14.9 billion out of its $15.1 billion in revenue came from advertising made valuable by your data. Sure, down at Menlo Park they’d find some more palatable euphemisms to package it all, but ultimately Facebook has made money by watching what you do and then selling what it knows about you. The end result is some kind of pay-for-manipulation: Hopefully, either you’ll buy something, believe something, or at least spend your attention on something long enough to pay off.

Now Facebook says it’s changing dramatically. Inside the room where Zuckerberg announced the redesign, there were cheers for people who you can’t help but imagine are employees and developers who are building products on Facebook’s promise of “connecting” with “users” in a “personalized” way. Everywhere else, people felt dizzy with skepticism and bewilderment.

Advertisement

Just moments after Zuck delivered his privacy pronouncements and walked off stage, the director of Messenger’s consumer products team, Asha Sharma, said that “businesses will learn about their customers in a personalized way at scale.”

That certainly doesn’t sound like much has changed. Add whiplash to the list of common reactions to this year’s F8. How are they learning more if privacy is the new focus?

Advertisement

Buried below all the new product announcements made this year—New colors! New ways to buy things! New ways to get dates!—was Zuckerberg’s silence on previously announced privacy initiatives, and one in particular.

A year ago, at 2018's F8, the company announced a “clear history” function that would give its users more control over data and address some key concerns about a company that’s building a cache of personal data so large as to be unknowable. Zuckerberg talked at times this year about the importance of “reduced permanence” to Facebook’s future, but he said nothing about “clear history,” a feature that would go a long way to handing over the keys to privacy to the user.

Advertisement

This year’s F8 promised the biggest Facebook redesign in half a decade plus a fundamental shift in how the company thinks about what it builds. It’s a reaction to three years of intense ongoing privacy scandals plus over a decade of boiling criticism against the social network.

The company’s founder said that Groups will be centered in Facebook’s redesign, a refocusing that brings to the foreground the tension inherent in what Facebook is trying to do: If groups become more private, how will they deal with misinformation, hackers, criminals and spammers that have made Facebook groups such fertile ground for abuse?

Advertisement

Like most of what we saw on Tuesday, the announcement was packaged as a promise but left observers with more questions than answers.

Advertisement

“Privacy is the future” sounds big, end-to-end encrypted messaging by default would be significant. But Facebook still tracks your physical location all the time, still follows you around on the internet, still ultimately makes money from capturing your attention and hopefully your wallet at the expense of all else. So while big proclamations about the future make for great marketing, the fact is that even if all these promises are fulfilled, Facebook’s next version is going to be an awful lot like the last one.

During the climactic opening moment his keynote address, Zuckerberg’s declared that “the future is private” as the words towered over the 34-year-old on an enormous screen, giving it a 1984 feel that seems so common in tech product launches these days. Tuesday’s ultra-Silicon Valley sales pitch fit into the tradition perfectly: War is peace, freedom is slavery, Facebook is privacy.

Advertisement

The extent to which Zuckerberg can take those two from obvious contradictions to at least somewhat compatible ideas is being framed as the biggest challenge the young CEO has ever faced. Or maybe it’s just a timely marketing push. Like almost everything else from Zuckerberg’s big speech, that’s just another question we don’t have the answer to yet.