01/05/2019 11:27 AM IST

Facebook Commits to Privacy, But Wants To Know Who You'd Date

At its annual developer conference F8, Mark Zuckerberg talked a lot about wanting to protect user privacy, but has a history of doing just the opposite.


BENGALURU, Karnataka —Social giant Facebook has announced a new privacy focused approach, and a major app redesign at its annual global developer conference, F8, which took place on Tuesday, April 30 in the US.

The new design puts a lot of focus on events and groups, the two more active and engaged part of the application. It also moved away from its iconic blue look, to have a much lighter design.

This comes at a time Facebook has been facing one privacy-related scandal after another. The company is facing steep fines for violating privacy, and US lawmakers want Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to be personally liable for Facebook’s failures on privacy. While some industry watchers still believe that the way forward is to “empower” tech companies, the era of ‘self-regulation’ might be coming to an end. The social network is being questioned by lawmakers and officials around the world, including in India.

The Facebook redesign is supposed to signal a shift away from these privacy concerns. In his presentation, Zuckerberg also announced that Facebook is working to integrate its different messaging services— WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger—and will also be enabling end-to-end privacy for all of these. WhatsApp, which is the most popular messaging platform in India, already uses end-to-end encryption by default.

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Other features that Zuckerberg talked about included a move away from the News Feed to focus on group messaging, and a greater focus on Stories (updates that disappear after a day) to create “a more trustworthy platform.”

“By far, the three fastest-growing areas of online communication are private messaging, groups and Stories,” Zuckerberg said while presenting the redesign at F8.

“There are tens of millions of active groups on Facebook. When people find the right one, it often becomes the most meaningful part of how they use Facebook. And today, more than 400 million people on Facebook belong to a group that they find meaningful,” Facebook said in a blog post. “With this in mind, we’re rolling out a fresh new design for Facebook that’s simpler and puts your communities at the center. We’re also introducing new tools that will help make it easier for you to discover and engage with groups of people who share your interests.”

The new design will start rolling out around the world on both Android and iOS apps, and a desktop redesign is to follow. There’s also a new feature called Meet New Friends, to help connect with strangers who have the same interests, or share real-world connections with users. It has also redesigned events to give a rich map view, so you can easily see things that are going on around you.

With these changes, Facebook is also moving away from the News Feed, which gave every user a public platform through which messages could go viral — prompting the twinned problems of fake news and hate speech, that the company has struggled to contain.

Privacy is about ‘optics’

Although a lesser focus on the News Feed, as well as ensuring end-to-end encryption for all messaging products sound like good steps towards greater privacy and security, Facebook actually named only a few concrete steps that it is taking. The word privacy was used a lot (just about every speaker on the livestream used the phrase ‘the future is private’), but apart from a couple of new developments, much of Zuckerberg’s talk was dedicated to things like payments on WhatsApp, virtual reality, and the international expansion of Facebook Portal.

Facebook’s prioritization of privacy was 'all about optics'.

At the same time, Facebook also went back to its roots with a dating app feature to mark people as your “secret crush”. The social platform announced Tuesday at its F8 conference that Facebook Dating, which launched last year, would now include a new feature called Secret Crush. The new feature allows users to “explore potential romantic relationships within their own extended circle of friends.”

Users of Facebook Dating who opt into Secret Crush can select up to nine of their Facebook friends who they’re romantically interested in. If one of those interests has also added you to their Secret Crush list, the app matches you up. Currently, Facebook Dating allows people to discover matches in their friend circles in Colombia, Thailand, Canada, Argentina and Mexico — and as of Tuesday, they’re expanding to 14 new countries: the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Guyana and Suriname. 

As Wall Street Journal columnist David Pierce tweeted, Facebook is saying “the future is private,” but it’s also saying “please list all your friends you want to sleep with.”

And while Facebook’s focus on privacy might sound like a reaction to the scandals the company is presently facing, it actually has a history of talking about privacy at the conference, with limited results. For example, at last year’s F8, Facebook announced a Clear History feature that would keep users from being tracked on the Internet.

The privacy tool has been delayed, with the company saying the feature will harm its ability to target users with ads, The Verge reported. Former employees told BuzzFeed News at the time that Facebook’s prioritization of privacy is “all about optics”.

That’s not the only instance where Facebook has talked about a privacy feature that never rolled out. At F8 in 2014, Facebook announced Anonymous login, a feature that would let you use your Facebook account to log into websites (so users don’t have to manage multiple passwords) without sharing any of their personal information from Facebook. This would allow people to use the apps without worrying about their personal information. Five years later, the feature is still nowhere to be seen, so it’s probably best to take Facebook’s latest announcements with a dose of skepticism until we actually see the changes go live.