Facebook Plans To Improve Privacy
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook around the idea of connecting the world, and now he says he wants Facebook to be more private and a more secure experience. In a long blog post, Zuckerberg admits the company, quote, "doesn't currently have a strong reputation for building services with privacy in mind." That is a reference to lots of congressional hearings and investigative reports that have shown Facebook sharing user information in uncomfortable ways. Kurt Wagner is writing about this for the tech website Recode. Hi, there.
KURT WAGNER: Hi.
SHAPIRO: Is there a tension between the idea of connecting the world and these new initiatives like secure messaging with end-to-end encryption, keeping users' photos and messages more secure, not keeping them forever - those sorts of things?
WAGNER: There is a little bit of tension there. And primarily, it's because when you think about how Facebook has gotten as big as it is now, which is, you know, more than 2 billion users, a big part of that has been that you have a profile. Everyone else has a profile, and Facebook can see that and then kind of encourage people to connect with one another, right? It can use information or maybe, like, interests that you have and therefore assume that you might want to connect with these other people, you know, in the real world. That's harder to do when there's not all of that same data. That is basically how Facebook got as big as it is. And none of that is private in the way that the company's now talking about.
SHAPIRO: All right, so building the web of social connections is one question. Another question is advertisers. The Facebook model has been built off of selling advertisers access to information about Facebook users. What happens when that information about users becomes more private?
WAGNER: Well, I think this is the most important question about this whole thing. There's not only that element of it which you just brought up, which is Facebook is a data-driven business model and has been since its inception. And so if they no longer have all of that data that they're used to having, you know, how robust can their ad business be? How targeted can those ads become? At the same time, just messaging, in general, is a service that doesn't really have a strong, stable business right now. We don't know of a messaging platform, at least in the U.S. or in Europe, that has really, you know, nailed the business side. And I think that's because it is a private experience. And you can't necessarily throw ads into someone's messaging inbox in the way you can when they're scrolling through a news feed.
SHAPIRO: Facebook has been under so much criticism from lawmakers, from reporters. Is this likely to satisfy those critics?
WAGNER: I think some of it might be. You know, it's certainly nice when everyone's ripping on you about not being privacy focused to come out with a really long blog post from the CEO that says, we care about privacy; and that's going to be the focus going forward. At the same time, what I've learned from covering Facebook for about six years now is that the company doesn't really do anything if it doesn't have the user data to back it up. So my guess is that Facebook is noticing that this is where users are spending their time - right? - WhatsApp, Messenger, groups, stories. And so the company is leaning into that because that's where they see people spending their time. And it also kind of provides them an opportunity to say, we're going to do a better job; and we're going to talk about privacy from day one.
SHAPIRO: There have been so many instances of Facebook apologizing for lapses, saying they have learned from their mistakes. And then the cycle repeats. And another lapse is revealed, and they're apologizing again. Can Facebook really be trusted to take these steps in good faith?
WAGNER: There's going to be a lot of people who say no, that Facebook has already, basically, you know, shown its true colors and that Mark Zuckerberg coming out and talking about how much he cares about privacy is a little bit too little, too late. That being said, this is going to be a transition that, I think, a lot of tech companies in the industry kind of make. I mean, we're already seeing Apple, for example, as - has encrypted messaging with iMessage. Google has, you know, been trying to get into messaging for a long time. And so I don't think Facebook is going to be alone here, and there's really a level of convenience that comes with Facebook products. And I think that if you're a user, the convenience of using a Facebook product may outweigh your concerns around whether or not, you know, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook truly care about your privacy. We've seen that happen time and time again. And I don't necessarily think it's going to change this time around.
SHAPIRO: Kurt Wagner covers Facebook for the tech website Recode. Thanks so much for talking with us.
WAGNER: Yeah, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.