Facebook’s total focus on privacy could crowd out more important issues

By Casey Newton

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

F8 is a conference where Facebook executives talk about the future — and at Facebook, the future is flexible. In 2015, the future was video. The next year, the future was bots. The year after that, the future was augmented reality — and also a project to let you hear with your skin. All of those technologies eventually found their way into Facebook’s products, in some form — well, all except the skin hearing thing. But none really shifted the company away from its core product: an infinitely scrolling feed of updates interrupted with highly targeted advertising.

This year, the company sought to break with that tradition. Nearly every speaker at today’s F8 keynote, starting with Mark Zuckerberg, repeated a version of the phrase “the future is private.” Since Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s pivot toward private messaging last month, I’ve argued that the move represents a fundamental transformation of the company. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg sought to convince the world — and skeptics inside his own company — that he’s serious.

One way he did that was through product launches. Zuckerberg’s vision for a new Facebook is perhaps best represented by a coming redesign of the flagship app and desktop site that will emphasize events and groups, at the expense of the News Feed. Collectively, the design changes will push people toward smaller group conversations and real-world meetups — and away from public posts. Zuckerberg’s new vision also appears in the large number of announcements related to messaging: a desktop version of Messenger; a redesigned mobile app built for speed; and a version of WhatsApp for Facebook’s Portal home speaker.

Just as important, though, is the way he talked about all these launches: as the foundation of what he repeatedly called Facebook’s “next chapter.” “Over time I believe that a private social platform will be even more important in our lives than our digital town squares,” he said during his keynote. “So today we’re going to talk about what this could look like as a product, what it means to have the center of your social experience be more private, [and] how we need to change the way we run this company in order to build this.”

One thing Zuckerberg did not discuss on Tuesday in any detail is the considerations that led him to move away from the public broadcast model of social networking. But he gave the broad outlines to Mike Isaac in the New York Times:

“By far, the three fastest-growing areas of online communication are private messaging, groups and Stories,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “In 2019, we expect the amount of Stories that are shared to outnumber the amount of Feed posts that are shared.”

One way of looking at Facebook in this moment is as an unstoppable behemoth that bends reality to its will, no matter the consequences. (This is how many journalists tend to see it.) Another way of looking at the company is from the perspective of its fundamental weakness — as a slave to ever-shifting consumer behavior. (This is how employees are more likely to look at it.)

In the short term, Facebook’s strength is undeniable. The company is earning record profits, usage of its products is at an all-time high, and it continues to find new users around the world. But in his interview with the Times, Zuckerberg admits that the writing is on the wall. If the company wants to remain dominant, it has to refocus.

Last week, before he turned his attention to narrowly company-focused issues, Zuckerberg sat down with historian Yuval Noah Harari to talk about the effect of social networks on society at large. Yesterday in this space, I wrote about some of the questions that the historian asked the CEO:

Does Facebook want to “connect” people for any particular purpose, or simply to keep them looking at a screen? How do you build a social network that improves cohesion among people around the world, rather than erodes it? How do you build artificial intelligence systems that don’t serve as tools of surveillance and control? Is the internet economy undermining human agency and democracy?

These are heady subjects, and any discussion about them would not fit neatly into the cheerful choreography of a developer conference keynote. But they lingered in my mind as I watched Zuckerberg rally his audience. The company has brand-new marching orders that, according to the CEO, will require Facebook to reorganize itself. It will rip out old technical infrastructure and replace it with brand-new code bases. It will jettison its old gospel of public sharing and begin preaching privacy.

As it undertakes that very difficult work, the questions raised by Harari and others will linger. But as Zuckerberg works to fortify Facebook against future challengers, it’s hard for me to imagine him giving it less than his all. And as Facebook transforms itself, how much attention will the company have left over to address all the social changes spinning out from inside it?

More from F8

What else happened at the first day of Facebook’s developer conference? Facebook asked live stream viewers whether they think the company cares about them. Facebook Dating is coming to 14 more countries, and it’s adding a “secret crush” feature. You can now ship stuff through Marketplace. The company’s Spark AR platform has momentum.

The Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S got mixed reviews, and you can now pre-order them. Portal is coming to more countries, and it’s getting encrypted WhatsApp chats.

Instagram is redesigning its camera, adding a donations sticker, and letting influencers sell stuff via shoppable tags. (It’s also testing a version that hides the amount of likes a post has, and some anti-bullying features.) WhatsApp is testing payments in India, and adding catalogs for businesses.

Lastly, I want to shout out the Facebook Band, an incredibly talented group of musicians who moonlight as Facebook employees at its London office. You will never play to a colder crowd than a group of developers and journalists at 8:30 a.m. in a convention hall in San Jose, and yet the Facebook Band’s set had my row of journalists bouncing in our chairs for a full hour before the keynote. The one-two punch George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90” with Rihanna’s “We Found Love” was a particularly inspired combination, I thought. If you ever get a chance to see the Facebook Band play live, I highly recommend it.


Tech Lobbyists Push to Defang California’s Landmark Privacy Law

Issie Lapowsky reports that, as expected, lobbyists for big tech companies want to water down California’s privacy law:

The California Consumer Privacy Act, or CCPA, gives residents of California the ability to request the data that businesses collect on them, demand that it be deleted, and opt out of having that data sold to third parties, among other things. But last week, the California Assembly’s Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection advanced a series of bills that would either amend CCPA or carve out exemptions for certain categories of businesses. These bills received widespread backing from business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, as well as leading tech lobbying firms that represent the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. But privacy groups almost unanimously opposed them, stoking fears that state lawmakers are about to strip the country’s meatiest privacy law to the bone.

Poway Synagogue Shooting: America Under Attack by White Supremacists Acting Like ISIS

Kelly Weill examines the connection between online hate forum 8Chan and recent white nationalist terrorism:

After the New Zealand shooting, 8chan users decorated the alleged killer as a “saint” and encouraged each other to commit shootings of their own, including against synagogues, to prepare for the “third world war” against Jews, or to kill a journalist critical of the forum.

“As a lot of people have noted over the past few days, 8chan is an awful cesspool of encouraging violence and hatred,” said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor focusing on online extremism at the University of Albany. “That hate and encouragement of violence might be a sort of baseline, background noise, but periodically someone moves from participating in this online awfulness to committing offline actions.”

Christchurch-Style Terrorism Reaches American Shores

The Digital Forensic Research Lab examines the alleged shooter’s online activity before and during this weekend’s attack on the Poway Synagogue and finds that it is directly connected to last month’s attack on two Christchurch mosques. It also asks why 8Chan deserves a platform on the web given how frequently terrorists use it to recruit followers:

In this overt championing of terrorist attacks, some 8chan boards are now essentially identical in content to the hidden Telegram channels used by ISIS militants. Both demonize their chosen targets, idolize extreme violence, and advocate and commemorate mass murder.

U.S. internet companies would not long tolerate a popular and public-facing website devoted to ISIS recruitment. It is surprising that they tolerate 8chan today. U.S. internet service providers would be well served to look to the example set by ISPs in Australia and New Zealand after the Christchurch attacks, which have blocked 8chan and its proxies. Cloudflare, the U.S. company that shields thousands of websites (including 8chan) from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks under its “content neutral” policy, might also reexamine its service commitment.

Facebook Frenzy: How the German Right Wing Dominates Social Media

Journalists at Spiegel analyzed German political parties’ Facebook posts and found that the far-right party posted more — and reached more people on Facebook — than any other:

While political surveys indicate that support for the party is currently between 11 and 15 percent, fully 85 percent of all shared posts originating from German political parties stem from the AfD. The remaining 15 percent of these “shares” are split among the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the pro-environment Greens, the Left Party, the pro-business FDP and the conservatives. The countries big-tent parties – the SPD and the conservative combination of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – were only responsible for 2 to 3 percent of shares each.


YouTube CEO addresses top creator issues including copyright claims and trending section

In a new blog post, Susan Wojcicki told YouTubers that the service would attempt to ensure that at least half of all videos in its trending section are made by YouTube-native creators rather than celebrities and big publishers. Julia Alexander:

Creators have also complained that YouTube’s trending section, an important page for finding viewers, often skips over their videos — instead showing sports highlights, movie trailers, music videos, and late-night clips. Those complaints are nothing new, but Wojcicki’s blog marks the first time that an executive at YouTube has addressed those frustrations at length.

To address complaints, Wojcicki says at least half of all trending videos will now come from YouTubers, “with the remainder coming from music and traditional media.” That doesn’t mean that a hugely popular video is guaranteed to appear on the trending list, but it addresses concerns that YouTube isn’t prioritizing its own creators. Wojcicki says YouTube is “close” to hitting that representation figure already.

Google’s YouTube to Stream Live Major League Baseball Games

Sure, why not:

Google’s YouTube reached a deal with Major League Baseball for exclusive rights to stream games in the second half of the season, continuing the expansion of live sports to the internet.

K-pop Army Battle Royale

“Billboard Music Awards’ vote process is being manipulated by inauthentic Twitter accounts,” according to this analysis by Geoff Goldberg:

More than 20% of accounts that tweeted, retweeted, or were mentioned in tweets which include #FollowAnExoL are accounts that were created across three days (between April 18th, 2019 and April 20th, 2019, more specifically).


Twitter Expands Live-Streaming Video Lineup, Sets Content Deals With Viacom, ESPN, Live Nation, Univision, and More

Twitter is still doing video deals, Todd Spangler reports:

In addition to new initiatives with previous partners including the NFL, ESPN, Viacom, Major League Soccer, Live Nation, and Activision Blizzard, Twitter unveiled a deal with Univision Communications to bring more premium sports, news and entertainment content to the social network’s U.S. Hispanic users. In addition, Twitter is adding content from the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.


How to Take Back Control From Facebook

Charlie Warzel talks to a bunch of folks about how Facebook might be meaningfully regulated:

In my column, a former F.T.C. official argued that the agency might impose restrictions that would be likely to “change the way Facebook handles and shares data.” What would that look like? Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, emailed to say that most people “have no idea what the F.T.C. could actually do” to Facebook. So I asked him.

Rotenberg argued that the F.T.C. ruling is a golden opportunity to break up Facebook — especially to spin off WhatsApp. “This isn’t just philosophical — it’s actually an appropriate and fair penalty,” he said.

These Ads Think They Know You

The New York Times took out a bunch of ads where they just tell people what the ad thinks about them, based on the Times’ targeting criteria, and it’s very funny.

This ad thinks you’re male,

work in media,

and cut the cable cord.

Wow, they got me.

And finally ...

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and edgy memes of you saying “the future is private.” casey@theverge.com