The future of Facebook is.. privacy?
That would appear to be the case, going by CEO Mark Zuckerberg's latest 3,000 word blog post, in which he outlines his plans to add in more privacy-aligned features, better connecting the trends of groups and messaging into the broader Facebook experience.
As per Zuckerberg:
"Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks."
Among the new measures, Zuckerberg says Facebook will make the following tools a focus:
End-to-end encryption across all apps
This is interesting, because former WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum reportedly clashed with Facebook over its moves away from privacy-focused, tools like messaging encryption, - but with the more recent data scandals and concerns weighing heavy, it seems that Facebook is switching its perspective, and is now willing to further wall off its tools.
As per Zuckerberg:
"End-to-end encryption is an important tool in developing a privacy-focused social network. Encryption is decentralizing - it limits services like ours from seeing the content flowing through them and makes it much harder for anyone else to access your information. This is why encryption is an increasingly important part of our online lives, from banking to healthcare services."
That's where Facebook is increasingly headed, towards creating its own online eco-system, where discovery, connection and payments, in all forms, can occur on an all-in-one network. Which is why it's now more open to encryption, aside from the need to respond to the aforementioned privacy concerns of late.
This also likely aligns with the platform's broader vision for Blockchain, which it's currently developing via a dedicated business unit.
Improved tools for ephemeral messaging
Zuckerberg notes that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are "by far the fastest growing areas of online communication". Catering to this, Facebook will look to "set a new standard for private communication platforms", with content that automatically expires, or is archived over time.
"Stories already expire after 24 hours unless you archive them, and that gives people the comfort to share more naturally. This philosophy could be extended to all private content."
That could see messages deleted after a month, or a year, by default, reducing the risk of your content resurfacing and embarrassing you at a later stage. Users would have the option to change the timeframe, or turn off auto-deletion completely, but it could provide another measure of reassurance. Facebook may also look to provide an option for users to set individual messages to expire after a few seconds or minutes.
In addition, Zuckerberg says that Facebook will look at limiting the amount of time the platform stores messaging metadata.
"We use this data to run our spam and safety systems, but we don't always need to keep it around for a long time. An important part of the solution is to collect less personal data in the first place, which is the way WhatsApp was built from the outset."
Again, a reference to WhatsApp's more privacy-focused systems. Facebook has built its business on data, on taking in people's information and essentially weaponizing it for advertisers. Any reduction in this capacity will likely have an impact - but then again, Facebook already has a heap of data on its 2.3 billion users, and even reducing parts of its collection processes will still leave it able to categorize users in a range of different - and highly accurate - ways.
Altering its data storage approach for different regions
Zuckerberg also notes that Facebook will continue to carefully assess where it builds its data centers and stores user data.
"As we build our infrastructure around the world, we've chosen not to build data centers in countries that have a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression. If we build data centers and store sensitive data in these countries, rather than just caching non-sensitive data, it could make it easier for those governments to take people's information."
As noted by The Verge, countries like Russia and Vietnam have continually called on tech platforms to store their user data locally, where it can be more easily intercepted by law enforcement agencies.
Zuckerberg notes that holding firm on this stance could see Facebook blocked or continually restricted in some regions (most importantly China), but that this is a tradeoff the company is willing to make.
Finally, Zuckerberg also addresses Facebook's broader goal of messaging interoperability, which would enable users to message others across Facebook's family of apps.
"People want to be able to choose which service they use to communicate with people. However, today if you want to message people on Facebook you have to use Messenger, on Instagram you have to use Direct, and on WhatsApp you have to use WhatsApp. We want to give people a choice so they can reach their friends across these networks from whichever app they prefer."
The merger of its messaging options - first reported by The New York Times in January - would open up a range of opportunities for businesses, along with the noted streamlined communication capacity for users, and Zuckerberg notes that there are also clear safety benefits to facilitating cross-platform connection.
"This could also improve convenience in many experiences where people use Facebook or Instagram as their social network and WhatsApp as their preferred messaging service. For example, lots of people selling items on Marketplace list their phone number so people can message them about buying it. That's not ideal, because you're giving strangers your phone number. With interoperability, you'd be able to use WhatsApp to receive messages sent to your Facebook account without sharing your phone number - and the buyer wouldn't have to worry about whether you prefer to be messaged on one network or the other."
But Facebook also wants to take this even further, by merging your Facebook messaging options with SMS capacity.
"You can already send and receive SMS texts through Messenger on Android today, and we'd like to extend this further in the future, perhaps including the new telecom RCS standard"
That opens up a range of additional technical considerations, particularly in regards to encryption and added security, but it's another way in which Facebook is looking to make messaging a bigger focus, and make its platform the key connective platform for all your interactions.
There's a range of considerations in Zuckeberg's plan, many of which will have significant implications for business and personal connection and interaction on The Social Network. But really, the core to all of this is Facebook's broader ambition to become the home of all your day-to-day interactions, in all forms. If Facebook is to go ahead with these more stringent privacy measures - which would clearly help users feel more secure in their usage in light of rising concerns - that would mean that its tracking less data, which it would offset by facilitating more functions within its network.
That's a big gamble to take - the trade-off of Facebook has always been data, you give up your data in exchange for access to this 'free' social tool. If Facebook is to take less data, the trade-off will need to come from somewhere else.
Can Facebook become that all-encompassing app which facilitates a broader range of processes? If they're going to get there, trust is key, and these measures would form a significant step in establishing that essential foundation.