Mark Zuckerberg: “The future is private.” Sundar Pichai: “The present is private.” While both CEOs made protecting user data a central theme of their conference keynotes this month, Facebook’s product updates were mostly vague vaporware while Google’s were either ready to ship or ready to demo. The contrast highlights the divergence in strategy between the two tech giants.
For Facebook, privacy is a talking point meant to boost confidence in sharing, deter regulators and repair its battered image. For Google, privacy is functional, going hand-in-hand with on-device data processing to make features faster and more widely accessible.
Everyone wants tech to be more private, but we must discern between promises and delivery. Like “mobile,” “on-demand,” “AI” and “blockchain” before it, “privacy” can’t be taken at face value. We deserve improvements to the core of how our software and hardware work, not cosmetic add-ons and instantiations no one is requesting.
At Facebook’s F8 last week, we heard from Zuckerberg about how “Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves,” and he reiterated how that would happen through ephemerality and secure data storage. He said Messenger and Instagram Direct will become encrypted…eventually…which Zuckerberg had already announced in January and detailed in March. We didn’t get the Clear History feature that Zuckerberg made the privacy centerpiece of his 2018 conference, or anything about the Data Transfer Project that’s been silent for the 10 months since its reveal.
What users did get was a clumsy joke from Zuckerberg about how “I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.” No one laughed. At least he admitted that “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
But it shouldn’t have to. Facebook made its first massive privacy mistake in 2007 with Beacon, which quietly relayed your off-site e-commerce and web activity to your friends. It’s had 12 years, a deal with the FTC promising to improve, countless screw-ups and apologies, the democracy-shaking Cambridge Analytica scandal and hours of being grilled by Congress to get serious about the problem. That makes it clear that if “the future is private,” then the past wasn’t. Facebook is too late here to receive the benefit of the doubt.