Roger McNamee thinks the pivot to “privacy” protects Facebook, not you

Roger McNamee is the author of “Zucked.”
Roger McNamee is the author of “Zucked.”
Image: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
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Mark Zuckerberg says he has a grand new vision of social media, one that involves rebuilding Facebook with privacy in mind. But his announcement this week of the company’s supposed shift in philosophy—from a public “town square” to a more private “living room”—has raised many questions and doubts

The thrust of Zuckerberg’s lengthy blog post is that Facebook plans to integrate its messaging services—Messenger, Instagram’s direct messages, and WhatsApp—to allow people to send messages from one app to another, and that these messages will be end-to-end encrypted, which the New York Times already reported in January. Like content posted in Instagram or Facebook Stories, there could also be an option to make private communications disappear after a certain period.

It sounds like a positive step considering Facebook’s history of privacy violations and abuses—and it probably is. But critics argue that the fundamental problem with privacy on the platform is not the encryption of its messaging services—it’s how much data the company collects on individual users, making billions of dollars in the process. Zuckerberg’s new approach does not seem to tackle this issue, making his missive sound more like a public-relations stunt than a legitimate re-imagining of his business.

Venture capitalist Roger McNamee was an early investor in Facebook, and a one-time mentor for Zuckerberg. In the past several years, however, he started realizing that the company’s business model was in many ways detrimental to individuals and society as a whole. He became a vocal Facebook critic, lobbying for regulation, and even writing a book that the New York Times calls an “anti-Facebook manifesto.”

We therefore asked McNamee to help unpack the true meaning behind Zuckerberg’s announcement. “In general, I applaud end-to-end encryption for messaging applications,” he says. But, with regard to privacy, “the story is more complicated and certainly less positive for users and society.” 

On what “privacy” really means:

“On privacy, I would suggest what Facebook is doing is more about public relations,” McNamee says. “[It has] tried to put a positive spin on something that they’re doing for business reasons, and would have done anyway.”

Zuckerberg’s post suggests a wholesale shift of approach toward privacy, but McNamee notes that extending privacy protections (like end-to-end encryption) to content that’s not private messaging would be very difficult. How do you introduce privacy protections to the News Feed? Or public groups? Is that even possible?

But there’s potentially another reason for focusing on messaging services.

Facebook has been accused of monopolizing the social media and messaging market. But if its three competing apps—Messenger, Instagram, and Facebook—are integrated, it would be easier for Facebook to argue it can’t spin them off into separate services.

“It will be interesting to see exactly how they implement this,” he says. “Whether they use it as a way to combine services that might otherwise come under antitrust scrutiny.” 

On turning a blind eye to bad actors:

There is a “dark side” to end-to-end encryption, McNamee notes: “It relieves Facebook of the burden of moderation, which has been an enormous political problem for the company in recent months.”

Facebook has wrestled with the problem of misinformation spreading on WhatsApp, where end-to-end encryption makes it harder to control and eliminate, as only the sender and recipient can see the content of a message. But malicious actors don’t have to hide behind encryption to cause harm on the platform—Russian trolls that interfered in the 2016 US election did so in the open, through public posts, events, and groups. 

“I think the fundamental business model is a much bigger issue,” McNamee says. “Because of the business model, bad actors can do so much more harm just using the tools the way they were designed.” 

On the effect on Facebook’s business:

In his post, Zuckerberg barely mentions how the new philosophy will affect the company’s business. Facebook’s business model is currently built on ad targeting, which is based on data and metadata about user behaviors. “That is where the real value is…and the real harm to users occurs,” McNamee says.

Despite its new “privacy” focus, it seems that Facebook won’t stop collecting data and using it to show ads. So its basic business, which people like McNamee say is the crucial privacy violation, wouldn’t be significantly affected.

“There is, as far as I can tell, no part of this announcement that addresses that,” McNamee says. “And because no part of the announcement addresses that issue, we can look at this announcement as being largely about the performance of public relations rather than addressing the fundamental issues at Facebook.”

On Facebook’s relationship with China:

In his post, Zuckerberg said his company will not store data in countries that violate human rights or freedom of speech. This means the company won’t enter certain markets—which almost certainly includes China, a potential cash cow. This, McNamee says, is “exceptionally promising.”

“If he follows through on that, it may be the first time in Facebook’s history that the company gave up a business opportunity on a matter of principle. That would be incredibly exciting and worthy of praise.”

That said, refraining from doing business with countries with bad human-rights records would take away future business opportunities, “but have relatively little impact on [Facebook’s] current numbers,” McNamee says. For now, North America is by far Facebook’s most lucrative market, followed by Europe.

On what we really should be worrying about:

Though McNamee has become a frequent and damning critic of Facebook, he says we shouldn’t be mistaking the forest for the virtual trees.

“When I look at the problem going forward, I am much more scared about Google. If you look at the future applications— particularly things like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and smart devices—Facebook is less likely to be a major player there than Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. So as concerned as I am by Facebook, I do not want to single them out. Everybody’s relentless focus on Facebook keeps us from focusing on people who are potentially more threatening in the long run. Which is not to absolve Facebook of anything.”

We’re in a new kind of economy, McNamee says—one that is based on data-gathering, surveillance, and predicting human behavior. And whether we’re examining Facebook’s new promises or the larger tech ecosystem, we need to be thinking about privacy in much broader terms.