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Silicon Valley

Zuckerberg’s new privacy essay shows why Facebook needs to be broken up

Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand what privacy means—he can’t be trusted to define it for the rest of us.

Mar 7, 2019

In a letter published when his company went public in 2012, Mark Zuckerberg championed Facebook’s mission of making the world “more open and connected.” Businesses would become more authentic, human relationships stronger, and government more accountable. “A more open world is a better world,” he wrote.

Facebook’s CEO now claims to have had a major change of heart.

In “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking,” a 3,200-word essay that Zuckerberg posted to Facebook on March 6, he says he wants to “build a simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first.” In apparent surprise, he writes: “People increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”

Zuckerberg’s essay is a power grab disguised as an act of contrition. Read it carefully, and it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that if privacy is to be protected in any meaningful way, Facebook must be broken up.

Facebook grew so big, so quickly that it defies categorization. It is a newspaper. It is a post office and a telephone exchange. It is a forum for political debate, and it is a sports broadcaster. It’s a birthday-reminder service and a collective photo album. It is all of these things—and many others—combined, and so it is none of them.

Zuckerberg describes Facebook as a town square. It isn’t. Facebook is a company that brought in more than $55 billion in advertising revenue last year, with a 45% profit margin. This makes it one of the most profitable business ventures in human history. It must be understood as such.

Facebook has minted money because it has figured out how to commoditize privacy on a scale never before seen. A diminishment of privacy is its core product. Zuckerberg has made his money by performing a sort of arbitrage between how much privacy Facebook’s 2 billion users think they are giving up and how much he has been able to sell to advertisers. He says nothing of substance in his long essay about how he intends to keep his firm profitable in this supposed new era. That’s one reason to treat his Damascene moment with healthy skepticism.

“Frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services,” Zuckerberg writes. But Facebook’s reputation is not the salient question: its business model is. If Facebook were to implement strong privacy protections across the board, it would have little left to sell to advertisers aside from the sheer size of its audience. Facebook might still make a lot of money, but they’d make a lot less of it.

Zuckerberg’s proposal is a bait-and-switch. What he’s proposing is essentially a beefed-up version of WhatsApp. Some of the improvements might be worthwhile. Stronger encryption can indeed be useful, and a commitment to not building data centers in repressive countries is laudable, as far as it goes. Other principles that Zuckerberg puts forth would concentrate his monopoly power in worrisome ways. The new “platforms for private sharing” are not instead of Facebook’s current offering: they’re in addition to it. “Public social networks will continue to be very important in people’s lives,” he writes, an assertion he never squares with the vague claim that “interacting with your friends and family across the Facebook network will become a fundamentally more private experience.”

By narrowly construing privacy to be almost exclusively about end-to-end encryption that would prevent a would-be eavesdropper from intercepting communications, he manages to avoid having to think about Facebook’s weaknesses and missteps. Privacy is not just about keeping secrets. It’s also about how flows of information shape us as individuals and as a society. What we say to whom and why is a function of context. Social networks change that context, and in so doing they change the nature of privacy, in ways that are both good and bad.

Russian propagandists used Facebook to sway the 2016 American election, perhaps decisively. Myanmarese military leaders used Facebook to incite an anti-Rohingya genocide. These are consequences of the ways in which Facebook has diminished privacy. They are not the result of failures of encryption.

“Privacy,” Zuckerberg writes, “gives people the freedom to be themselves.” This is true, but it is also incomplete. The self evolves over time. Privacy is important not simply because it allows us to be, but because it gives us space to become. As Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen has written: “Conditions of diminished privacy also impair the capacity to innovate ... Innovation requires room to tinker, and therefore thrives most fully in an environment that values and preserves spaces for tinkering.” If Facebook is constantly sending you push notifications, it diminishes the mental space you have available for tinkering and coming up with your own ideas. If Facebook bombards the gullible with misinformation, this too is an invasion of privacy. What has happened to privacy in the last couple of decades, and how to value it properly, are questions that are apparently beyond Zuckerberg’s ken.

He says Facebook is “committed to consulting with experts and discussing the best way forward,” and that it will make decisions “as openly and collaboratively as we can” because “many of these issues affect different parts of society.” But the flaw here is the centralized decision-making process. Even if Zuckerberg gets all the best advice that his billions can buy, the result is still deeply troubling. If his plan succeeds, it would mean that private communication between two individuals will be possible when Mark Zuckerberg decides that it ought to be, and impossible when he decides it ought not to be.

If that sounds alarmist, consider the principles that Zuckerberg laid out for Facebook’s new privacy focus. The most problematic of them is the way he discusses “interoperability.” Zuckerberg allows that people should have a choice between messaging services: some want to use Facebook Messenger, some prefer WhatsApp, and others like Instagram. It’s a hassle to use all of these, he says, so you should be able to send messages from one to the other.

But allowing communications that are outside Facebook’s control, he says, would be dangerous if users were allowed to send messages not subject to surveillance by Facebook’s “safety and security systems.” Which is to say we should be allowed to use any messaging service we like, so long as it’s controlled by Facebook for our protection. Zuckerberg is arguing for tighter and tighter integration of Facebook’s various properties.

Monopoly power is problematic even for companies that just make a lot of money selling widgets: it allows them to exert undue influence on regulators and to rip off consumers. But it’s particularly worrisome for a company like Facebook, whose product is information.

This is why it should be broken up. This wouldn’t answer every difficult question that Facebook’s existence raises. It isn’t easy to figure out how to protect free speech while limiting hate speech and deliberate misinformation campaigns, for example. But breaking up Facebook would provide space to come up with solutions that make sense to society as a whole, rather than to Zuckerberg and Facebook’s other shareholders.

At a minimum, splitting WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook is a necessary first step. This makes the company smaller, and therefore less powerful when it comes to negotiating with other businesses and with regulators. Monopolies, as Louis Brandeis pointed out a century ago, and as Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, journalist Franklin Foer, and others have underscored more recently, simply accrue too much political and economic power to allow for the democratic process to find a balance in how to tackle issues like privacy.

Tellingly, Zuckerberg’s power has grown so great that he feels no need to hide his ambitions. “We can,” he writes, “create platforms for private sharing that could be even more important to people than the platforms we’ve already built to help people share and connect more openly.”

Only if we let him.

The photo illustration for this article originally included a logo for Snapchat alongside logos for Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp. We regret any intimation that Facebook owns Snapchat. It does not.