INTERNATIONAL – Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg stood on stage on Tuesday at the company’s annual F8 conference in San Jose, California, in front of a giant screen sharing a simple message: “The future is private”.
Zuckerberg spent most of his speech talking about Facebook’s commitment to a privacy-focused future, which will include more ephemeral posts, small-group activity rather than public sharing, and encryption for Facebook’s messaging apps.
But there was an easy way Facebook could have shown its commitment to privacy that would have saved Zuckerberg some time: by rolling out “Clear History”, a feature Facebook promised a year ago that would let people disassociate their internet-browsing histories from their Facebook profiles.
Clear History was first announced at last year's F8, the company's event for developers and partners, in response to an outcry about data collection and privacy lapses on its sites.
The tool still hasn't been launched, and it wasn't mentioned on Tuesday. Late last year, Facebook admitted that Clear History was taking longer than expected - it turns out that browsing data, which the company uses to help send more targeted advertising to users on its social platforms - is more deeply ingrained into Facebook’s systems than anyone realised.
Simply finding and deleting the correct data without disrupting Facebook’s advertising and analytics businesses has been a big enough challenge that the product hasn’t got off the ground, although the company said last month that the feature would debut later this year.
“It’s going to take time,” Zuckerberg said of Facebook’s privacy-focused future. “I’m sure we’re going to keep on unearthing old issues for a while, so it may feel like we’re not making progress at first.
"But I think that we've shown, time and again as a company, that we can do what it takes to evolve and build the products that people want.”
To be sure, these are challenging problems to unravel. Facebook’s business was built on harvesting detailed user data to show people precisely targeted ads - not the kind of thing you simply undo overnight.
Still, some privacy experts argue that the new announcements are little more than a veneer to assuage consumers, while changing little about its core business model.
“A lot of the focus is on changing the way that consumer-to-consumer interaction works,” said Greg Sparrow, senior vice-president and general manager at CompliancePoint, a data privacy and security consultancy.
“While that is laudable and it’s great that they're doing that, fundamentally it doesn't address the problem on the back-end side, which is businesses gaining access to this information and how they're using it from a data monetisation perspective.”
Zuckerberg’s privacy push also led to a redesign of the company's main social network, unveiled at F8, to focus on groups and communities - a shift from the open-sharing model he built the company around. The irony wasn’t lost on Zuckerberg.
“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this,” Zuckerberg said. “I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now.”