I must give credit where it is due: As Slate’s Will Oremus wrote in a piece called “Facebook’s Privacy Pivot” a few days ago, the social network has greatly improved its handling of user privacy in recent months. In a sense.
Once a company that seemed to delight in undermining its users’ choice of privacy settings, these days the social network promotes “friends” rather than “public” as its default post setting, it has an “anonymous” version of its site login tool that limits what personal information logged-into services can see, and it’s just generally less… shifty. Hooray for that.
However, there’s privacy and there’s privacy – and the kind that Facebook has decided to no longer play games with is just one facet, albeit an important one. Broadly speaking, it’s the kind that relates to providing a reliable border between private and public spaces. As for privacy from Facebook itself, its advertising customers and surveillance-happy authorities, that’s an entirely different matter.
Dishonesty is no longer necessary for growth
As Oremus wrote, Facebook no longer sees its core targeted-advertising moneyspinner as being entirely tied in with users sharing everything they do with the public, and it’s recognized that people are flocking to the likes of Snapchat precisely because they don’t want to be open to that degree. This is about hanging onto users’ attention.
I also think this points to the ongoing shift in Facebook’s growth model. For the first decade of its existence, Facebook did need to keep pushing its users to be public with their activities – it required an ever-expanding volume of content to keep attracting new users. Now it’s pretty much saturated the social networking market in “developed” countries, and in order to continue its growth it’s turning to the “developing” world.
In emerging markets, the company is using zero-rating deals to make itself the starting point for many people’s first and only internet experience, i.e. the one through their handset. Carriers have agreed to offer Facebook access for free, in order to tempt those first-time internet users to buy metered access to the articles they click through to, from the Facebook platform.
But this isn’t just about about emerging markets; Facebook is also changing its overall nature. Where it was once all about social, these days the platform is becoming much more of a media portal. As my colleague Carmel DeAmicis noted last week, Facebook’s new Save tool is part of this new focus on the third-party content that’s gradually taking over the News Feed. Again, it’s a portal play, designed to keep people accessing content from the Facebook platform wherever possible.
The all-seeing gatekeeper
The emerging-markets carrier deals and the wider Internet.org initiative, the Save tool and the Anonymous Login feature — and arguably even the trust-us shift on a certain kind of privacy — all point towards the social network gaining an ever-expanding view over not only how its users communicate on the platform, but how they consume online content in general.
By playing this powerful gatekeeper role, Facebook will have ever more profiling data with which to sell targeted advertising, and more data to offer up to the authorities if and when they come knocking on Facebook’s door, PRISM-style. We must also consider the impact of this role on the open web, but that’s a whole different story.
It’s great that Facebook now feels able to abandon its former dishonest strategy around the public-versus-private kind of privacy. But as for the other kind – the one that relates to building ever more detailed profiles of Facebook’s users – things look set to get worse for privacy fans, not better.