Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is apparently shifting the company’s focus to users’ privacy. In a blog post, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook “plans to integrate Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger so that people can communicate privately and directly across networks”. These communications would be fully encrypted, preventing anyone—even Facebook—from seeing the content shared on their services.
While this sounds fantastic in theory, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal early last year, we should wait before cracking open the champagne… Zuckerberg’s new vision for the Internet is, in many ways, more vulnerable to an Orwellian future than our current one reliant on a model of near constant surveillance.
We’ve talked a lot about what the Web used to be and what it has become. We’ve also talked about nostalgia for the days when it was a community which functioned on the dissemination and sharing of ideas rather than a commercial marketplace. One thing I remember distinctly about these conversations was a warning against the Stream and a platform-based Internet—every author we read advocated for a diverse Web with an equally diverse array of websites and voices.
This is something I could not stop thinking about while reading Isaac’s article.
This is a good time to mention that I’m just as creeped out by Facebook’s surveillance as the next person. I’m not comfortable with the company collecting my data and selling it to the highest bidder, and I’m not comfortable with its algorithms inferring my sexuality and interests based on my friends and online behaviour. What I’m even less comfortable with, however, is the already arguably more homogenous Internet becoming a monopoly of a handful of platforms—and I honestly cannot think of anything more terrifying than the general experience of the Internet becoming a single app.
This is essentially what Zuckerberg is advocating for. His decision to merge Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp as well as create a private and secure messaging service is the first step of this, no doubt consciously mimicking China’s incredibly popular app, WeChat. WeChat is a one-stop shop for everything from investing to takeout to intimate conversation—and something the government surveils vigorously in order to collect information on its citizens. Though Facebook promises end-to-end encryption and assures us they will not be hosting their data in countries with questionable human rights reputations, I trust them about as far as I can throw them. Furthermore, even if they do fulfill all these promises, the merging of all three apps—and we can’t forget its newly released answer to Patreon—is a very deliberate step in the direction of a future Internet that resembles an Intranet more than anything else. Why use any other service or website when you can do it all in one place? Though incredibly convenient, it will also put everyone’s data in the hands of one company. And what then? What happens when Facebook is no longer content to keep their private data encrypted? Or when they decide to share it with the government in the interest of safety and security?
I’m also incredibly curious as to how Facebook plans to stop the spread of misinformation if it won’t be looking at what’s being shared on its new messaging service. AI can only moderate to a certain degree; will their algorithms be fact-checking? If so, this presents a whole slew of other problems in terms of how we use language to communicate (will their AI understand hyperbole? Sarcasm?). Will the service be integrated into WhatsApp? Will their public data continue to be sold to the highest bidder? Will their encryption truly prevent even Facebook from seeing users’ content? How am I supposed to trust any of this when Facebook is still beholden to its real clients: its investors? Needless to say, I am made of questions… but according to Isaac’s article, Zuckerberg is tight-lipped about the entire project.
All I’ll say is this: I would much rather have my data gathered, anonymized and then sold before I see Facebook create a monster app that takes over the Web. I am not comfortable with using the same service and company for all my needs; it kills any and all innovation in the market… and I question anyone who doesn’t see Facebook’s recent business decisions as a move towards a singular, app-based experience of the Internet. If a government were taking these steps, people would be alarmed. Why not for a private company who is beholden only to its investors? Whose mission is to protect its own interests over anything else?
Conglomerates and monopolies put great amounts of power and wealth in the hands of a select few. When paired with the Internet, this can turn a tool that was previously used to freely disseminate a wide range of ideas into a singular point of view very easily, especially when those most vulnerable in a society do not have the luxury of boycotting it.