Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg stood on stage Tuesday at the company’s annual F8 conference in San Jose, California, in front of a giant screen sharing a simple message: “The future is private.”
Zuckerberg spent most of his speech talking about Facebook’s commitment to a privacy-focused future, which will include more ephemeral posts, small-group activity rather than public sharing, and encryption for Facebook’s messaging apps.
But there was an easy way Facebook could have shown its commitment to privacy that would have saved Zuckerberg some time: by rolling out “Clear History,” a feature Facebook promised a year ago that will let people disassociate their internet-browsing histories from their Facebook profiles.
Clear History was first announced at last year’s F8, the company’s event for developers and partners, in response to an outcry about data collection and privacy lapses on its sites. The tool still hasn’t been launched, and it wasn’t mentioned Tuesday.
Late last year, Facebook admitted that Clear History is taking longer than expected — it turns out that browsing data, which the company uses to help send more targeted advertising to users on its social platforms — is more deeply ingrained into Facebook’s systems than anyone realized.
Simply finding and deleting the correct data without disrupting Facebook’s advertising and analytics businesses has been a big enough challenge that the product hasn’t gotten off the ground, although the company said earlier this month that the feature will debut this fall.
“It’s going to take time,” Zuckerberg said of Facebook’s privacy-focused future. “I’m sure we’re going to keep on unearthing old issues for a while, so it may feel like we’re not making progress at first. But I think that we’ve shown, time and again as a company, that we can do what it takes to evolve and build the products that people want.”
To be sure, these are challenging problems to unravel. Facebook’s business was built on harvesting detailed user data to show people precisely targeted ads — not the kind of thing you simply undo overnight. Still, some privacy experts argue that the new announcements are little more than a veneer to assuage consumers, while changing little about its core business model.
“A lot of the focus is on changing the way that consumer-to-consumer interaction works,” said Greg Sparrow, senior vice president and general manager at CompliancePoint, a data privacy and security consultancy. “While that is laudable and it’s great that they’re doing that, but fundamentally it doesn’t address the problem on the back-end side, which is businesses gaining access to this information and how they’re using it from a data monetization perspective.”
Zuckerberg’s privacy push also led to a redesign of the company’s main social network, unveiled at F8, to focus on groups and communities — a shift from the open-sharing model he built the company around. The irony wasn’t lost on Zuckerberg.
“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this,” Zuckerberg said. “I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well, and to starting a new chapter for our products.”
End-to-end encryption of messaging products means that Facebook and other businesses won’t be able to access the content of those messages, but some analysts say that chat content isn’t valuable for advertising targeting anyway. Secure messaging is also difficult to implement, and “there are a lot of places where the company could deliver something that does not live up to end-to-end encryption’s security and privacy guarantees,” said Gennie Gebhart, associate director of research at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
At the same time, Facebook’s efforts to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger increases the value of the data the company has on users because it gleans more data points on each person.
“Data in those chat messengers is not as valuable as the demographic and behavioral information they collect based on how users interact with the platform,” Sparrow said. “They’re still going to monetize and have the same business model that they’ve had for a decade.”
Last year Facebook said it would investigate partners and conduct audits of any app with suspicious activity.
“The API access and the data that potential partners can get access to has continued to shrink a little bit,” Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of partnerships said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “We’re at this place where the foundation is robust and strong and is more secure than has been ever before.”