Facebook outlines their new “Privacy-Focused Vision” for Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram
Early this year, reports came out that Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg planned to unify the messaging infrastructure of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. Details of what this would achieve and how this would be achieved were sparse at the time, although we knew that Mr. Zuckerberg had ordered that all the three apps would have to incorporate end-to-end encryption. Now, in a blog post at Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg has outlined his vision of a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.
Facebook and Instagram have given people a way to interact with a lot of people at once, which Mr. Zuckerberg is calling the digital equivalent of a town square. But at the same time, contrasting this digital town square is the digital living room, wherein interactions between smaller groups of people is considered the fastest growing areas of online communication. There are different use cases for both, a public social network and a more privacy-focused platform, and Mr. Zuckerberg believes that the future of communication will shift towards private, encrypted services.
Facebook hence wants to evolve towards this future of a privacy-focused platform by focusing on a few key principles.
Private interactions will become the foundation of Facebook’s services.
People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share.
In line with this, Facebook will be working towards making Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp faster, simpler, more private and secure, as well as equip both with end-to-end encryption (WhatsApp already enjoys this functionality). Once this base foundation is achieved, Facebook plans to add ways to privately interact with friends, groups and businesses.
Encryption and Safety
Facebook believes that implementing end-to-end encryption for all private communications is the right thing to do. But at the same time, with services as large as Facebook, there will always be bad actors who misutilize the platform for nefarious activities, and encrypting data will make it significantly difficult to counter such activities.
Facebook will thus take a balanced approach to this, even though the end goal would be fully implementing end-to-end encryption. The company plans to work towards improving its ability to identify and stop bad actors across its apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when the contents of the messages cannot be seen.
Facebook has realized that people have now started preferring to keep their information around for shorter periods of time. Mr. Zuckerberg believes that there is an opportunity to set a new standard for private communication platforms — where content automatically expires or is archived over time.
For example, messages could be deleted after a month or a year by default. This would reduce the risk of your messages resurfacing and embarrassing you later. Of course you’d have the ability to change the timeframe or turn off auto-deletion for your threads if you wanted. And we could also provide an option for you to set individual messages to expire after a few seconds or minutes if you wanted.
It also makes sense to limit the amount of time we store messaging metadata. We use this data to run our spam and safety systems, but we don’t always need to keep it around for a long time. An important part of the solution is to collect less personal data in the first place, which is the way WhatsApp was built from the outset.
Future steps towards the platforms would thus revolve around putting less importance on permanence and more on user choice towards this permanence.
This has been one of the most contentious issues that has been talked about, ever since the initial report came out. As it turns out, Facebook does indeed want people to have a choice to reach their friends across networks from whichever app they prefer.
We plan to start by making it possible for you to send messages to your contacts using any of our services, and then to extend that interoperability to SMS too. Of course, this would be opt-in and you will be able to keep your accounts separate if you’d like.
This could also improve convenience in many experiences where people use Facebook or Instagram as their social network and WhatsApp as their preferred messaging service. For example, lots of people selling items on Marketplace list their phone number so people can message them about buying it. That’s not ideal, because you’re giving strangers your phone number. With interoperability, you’d be able to use WhatsApp to receive messages sent to your Facebook account without sharing your phone number — and the buyer wouldn’t have to worry about whether you prefer to be messaged on one network or the other.
You can imagine many simple experiences like this — a person discovers a business on Instagram and easily transitions to their preferred messaging app for secure payments and customer support; another person wants to catch up with a friend and can send them a message that goes to their preferred app without having to think about where that person prefers to be reached; or you simply post a story from your day across both Facebook and Instagram and can get all the replies from your friends in one place.
Thankfully, interoperability features would be opt-in.
Secure Data Storage
One of the most important choice that Facebook has to make in the short term future is where to store user data, and for this, the company has chosen to skip over countries that have a track record of violating human rights of privacy and freedom of expression. The tradeoff for this is that Facebook and its services may get blocked in certain countries, but that is something that the company is willing to endure.
Of course, the best way to protect the most sensitive data is not to store it at all, which is why WhatsApp doesn’t store any encryption keys and we plan to do the same with our other services going forward.
Mr. Zuckerberg has written a lot in his blog post, and most of it tackles the fundamental definition of what a social media platform is and what it will become. The blog post even acknowledges the skepticism on whether Facebook can pull off these changes — after all, Facebook as it currently is, stands exactly opposite to what a privacy-focused platform would be.
I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing. But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.
For now, we as users can only wait and watch. Hopefully, Facebook can keep its word, despite the growing resistance these changes would incite from advertisers, governments and other stakeholders.