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Facebook Announces New Privacy Initiative

By Emily A. Bruemmer

Smartphone computerOn March 6, 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced via an interview and a Facebook blog post a planned shift to “building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.”  Characterizing this shift as a “privacy-focused vision,” Zuckerberg said that this change in focus meant that Facebook and Instagram would not only function as “the digital equivalent of a town square” but also “the digital equivalent of the living room.”  This shift was billed in part as a response to user demand: according to the post, the “fastest growing areas of online communication” were private messaging, “ephemeral stories,” and small group communication. 

According to the blog post, Facebook’s “privacy-focused platform” will be based on six principles: private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage.  “Interoperability” refers to Facebook’s plan to integrate its messaging services across Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram Direct.  The blog post did not provide much detail on what these principles would mean in practice or what changes users would see from an experiential perspective, but rather qualified its efforts as being in the “early stages.”  

The blog post acknowledged Facebook’s reputation for not building “privacy protective services.”  In 2011, Facebook entered into a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) related to its privacy practices and has continued to face criticism for its privacy and data protection practices.  Indeed, just a few days prior to the announcement, news reports circulated regarding the ability to look up individuals on Facebook based on their telephone numbers, despite Facebook’s statements to users when they provided their telephone numbers that the number would be used for two-factor authentication.  Reports last year led to Facebook’s confirmation that the telephone numbers are also used for advertising. 

Some legislators and regulators have expressed concerns about information sharing between Facebook’s services. Last month, the German antitrust regulator issued a decision restricting Facebook from sharing information between services in the absence of users’ voluntary consent.  Facebook announced that it planned to appeal the decision.