Zuckerberg’s new privacy essay shows why Facebook needs to be broken up

Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand what privacy means — he can’t be trusted to define it for the rest of us

Zuckerberg’s new privacy essay shows why Facebook needs to be broken up
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand what privacy means—he can’t be trusted to define it for the rest of us.
by Konstantin Kakaes March 7, 2019

In a letter published when his company went public in 2012, Mark Zuckerberg championed Facebook’s mission of making the world “more open and connected.” Businesses would become more authentic, human relationships stronger, and government more accountable. “A more open world is a better world,” he wrote.

Facebook’s CEO now claims to have had a major change of heart.

In “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking,” a 3,200-word essay that Zuckerberg posted to Facebook on March 6, he says he wants to “build a simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first.” In apparent surprise, he writes: “People increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”

Zuckerberg’s essay is a power grab disguised as an act of contrition. Read it carefully, and it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that if privacy is to be protected in any meaningful way, Facebook must be broken up.

Facebook grew so big, so quickly that it defies categorization. It is a newspaper. It is a post office and a telephone exchange. It is a forum for political debate, and it is a sports broadcaster. It’s a birthday-reminder service and a collective photo album. It is all of these things—and many others—combined, and so it is none of them.

Zuckerberg describes Facebook as a town square. It isn’t. Facebook is a company that brought in more than $55 billion in advertising revenue last year, with a 45% profit margin. This makes it one of the most profitable business ventures in human history. It must be understood as such.

Facebook has minted money because it has figured out how to commoditize privacy on a scale never before seen. A diminishment of privacy is its core product. Zuckerberg has made his money by performing a sort of arbitrage between how much privacy Facebook’s 2 billion users think they are giving up and how much he has been able to sell to advertisers. He says nothing of substance in his long essay about how he intends to keep his firm profitable in this supposed new era. That’s one reason to treat his Damascene moment with healthy skepticism.

“Frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services,” Zuckerberg writes. But Facebook’s reputation is not the salient question: its business model is. If Facebook were to implement strong privacy protections across the board, it would have little left to sell to advertisers aside from the sheer size of its audience. Facebook might still make a lot of money, but they’d make a lot less of it.

Zuckerberg’s proposal is a bait-and-switch. What he’s proposing is essentially a beefed-up version of WhatsApp. Some of the improvements might be worthwhile. Stronger encryption can indeed be useful, and a commitment to not building data centers in repressive countries is laudable, as far as it goes. Other principles that Zuckerberg puts forth would concentrate his monopoly power in worrisome ways. The new “platforms for private sharing” are not instead of Facebook’s current offering: they’re in addition to it. “Public social networks will continue to be very important in people’s lives,” he writes, an assertion he never squares with the vague claim that “interacting with your friends and family across the Facebook network will become a fundamentally more private experience.”

By narrowly construing privacy to be almost exclusively about end-to-end encryption that would prevent a would-be eavesdropper from intercepting communications, he manages to avoid having to think about Facebook’s weaknesses and missteps. Privacy is not just about keeping secrets. It’s also about how flows of information shape us as individuals and as a society. What we say to whom and why is a function of context. Social networks change that context, and in so doing they change the nature of privacy, in ways that are both good and bad.

Russian propagandists used Facebook to sway the 2016 American election, perhaps decisively. Myanmarese military leaders used Facebook to incite an anti-Rohingya genocide. These are consequences of the ways in which Facebook has diminished privacy. They are not the result of failures of encryption.

“Privacy,” Zuckerberg writes, “gives people the freedom to be themselves.” This is true, but it is also incomplete. The self evolves over time. Privacy is important not simply because it allows us to be, but because it gives us space to become. As Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen has written: “Conditions of diminished privacy also impair the capacity to innovate … Innovation requires room to tinker, and therefore thrives most fully in an environment that values and preserves spaces for tinkering.” If Facebook is constantly sending you push notifications, it diminishes the mental space you have available for tinkering and coming up with your own ideas. If Facebook bombards the gullible with misinformation, this too is an invasion of privacy. What has happened to privacy in the last couple of decades, and how to value it properly, are questions that are apparently beyond Zuckerberg’s ken.

He says Facebook is “committed to consulting with experts and discussing the best way forward,” and that it will make decisions “as openly and collaboratively as we can” because “many of these issues affect different parts of society.” But the flaw here is the centralized decision-making process. Even if Zuckerberg gets all the best advice that his billions can buy, the result is still deeply troubling. If his plan succeeds, it would mean that private communication between two individuals will be possible when Mark Zuckerberg decides that it ought to be, and impossible when he decides it ought not to be.

If that sounds alarmist, consider the principles that Zuckerberg laid out for Facebook’s new privacy focus. The most problematic of them is the way he discusses “interoperability.” Zuckerberg allows that people should have a choice between messaging services: some want to use Facebook Messenger, some prefer WhatsApp, and others like Instagram. It’s a hassle to use all of these, he says, so you should be able to send messages from one to the other.

But allowing communications that are outside Facebook’s control, he says, would be dangerous if users were allowed to send messages not subject to surveillance by Facebook’s “safety and security systems.” Which is to say we should be allowed to use any messaging service we like, so long as it’s controlled by Facebook for our protection. Zuckerberg is arguing for tighter and tighter integration of Facebook’s various properties.

Monopoly power is problematic even for companies that just make a lot of money selling widgets: it allows them to exert undue influence on regulators and to rip off consumers. But it’s particularly worrisome for a company like Facebook, whose product is information.

This is why it should be broken up. This wouldn’t answer every difficult question that Facebook’s existence raises. It isn’t easy to figure out how to protect free speech while limiting hate speech and deliberate misinformation campaigns, for example. But breaking up Facebook would provide space to come up with solutions that make sense to society as a whole, rather than to Zuckerberg and Facebook’s other shareholders.

At a minimum, splitting WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook is a necessary first step. This makes the company smaller, and therefore less powerful when it comes to negotiating with other businesses and with regulators. Monopolies, as Louis Brandeis pointed out a century ago, and as Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, journalist Franklin Foer, and others have underscored more recently, simply accrue too much political and economic power to allow for the democratic process to find a balance in how to tackle issues like privacy.

Tellingly, Zuckerberg’s power has grown so great that he feels no need to hide his ambitions. “We can,” he writes, “create platforms for private sharing that could be even more important to people than the platforms we’ve already built to help people share and connect more openly.”

Only if we let him.

The strangest and most revealing week of the Trump presidency

The week before Christmas may go down as the strangest and most revealing of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Over just a few days, his sheer

  • thuggishness,
  • venality and
  • corruption

were laid bare. But it was also a time for Trumpian good deeds that allowed us a glimpse at how he might have governed if he had been shrewder — and had a genuine interest in the good that government can do.

.. Let’s start with his display of gangsterism and utter indifference to the law in a tweet Sunday calling his former lawyer Michael Cohen a “Rat” for telling the truth about various matters, including his dealings with Russia to build a Trump tower in Moscow and the president’s payoffs before the 2016 election to hide his alleged sexual conduct.

“Rat,” as many have pointed out, is a legendary organized-crime epithet, and we really are gazing at something like the Trump Family Syndicate. On Tuesday, the New York state attorney general, Barbara Underwood, forced the closure of the Donald J. Trump Foundation for what she described as “a shocking pattern of illegality.” She said the foundation functioned “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.”

And, yes, this was an all-in-the-family thing. The foundation’s board consistedof Trump himself, his three adult children and the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg. Incidentally, if you wonder why Trump hates the media so much, consider that it was the painstaking work of The Post’s David Fahrenthold that first blew the lid off Trump’s scamming disguised as charity.

.. But that wasn’t all. Two reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee made it abundantly clear that Trump was Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate in 2016 — and remained Putin’s guy after he won.

.. In extraordinary detail, the reports showed the lengths to which Russian social media went to demobilize Democratic constituencies, particularly African Americans and young supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Dispelling any doubt about Russia’s commitment to Trump, Putin’s online propagandists kept up their work well after the election was over, targeting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for abuse.
.. I rarely get a chance to say this, so: Good for Trump for endorsing a criminal-justice reform bill that passed the Senate on a bipartisan 87-to-12 vote. It’s highly unlikely this would have happened without him. The bill is not everything reformers hoped for, but it does begin to undo the draconian criminal penalties enacted largely in the 1990s, toward the end of the great crime wave that began in the late 1960s.

This is a key civil rights issue of our time. (Voting rights is another, and on this problem Trump is pushing entirely in the wrong direction.) The long sentences the new law would roll back hit African Americans the hardest. That’s particularly true of the disparity in the treatment of crack and powder cocaine sellers that the legislation would mitigate.

It’s often observed that Trump has few discernible political principles. A problem in many respects, this did give Trump enormous flexibility when he came into office. What if he had governed in other areas with the same eye toward bipartisan agreement that led him to criminal-justice reform?

Imagine a big infrastructure bill or a far less regressive approach to tax reform. Democrats would have been hard-pressed not to work with him. Instead, Trump just kept dividing us and stoking his base. He lazily went along with traditional conservatives on taxes and corporate lobbyists in the regulatory sphere because governing was never really the point. And now, he is reaping the whirlwind.

What happens when the intelligence community decides that Trump is too dangerous to be president?

A surge of public activism by former CIA personnel is one of the most unexpected developments of the Trump era

Two former CIA officers — both Democrats, both women, both liberal — were elected to Congress on November 6. Abigail Spanberger, former operations officer, was elected in Virginia’s 7th District. Elissa Slotkin, former analyst, won in Michigan’s 8th District. Both Spanberger and Slotkin incorporated their intelligence experience into their center-left platforms. Their victories tripled the number of CIA “formers” in Congress.

At the halfway point in Trump’s first term, these formers see themselves as a bulwark of an endangered democracy. The president and his supporters see a cabal of “deep state” radicals out to overturn the will of the people. With the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, an unqualified political operative, as Attorney General, Brennan said a “constitutional crisis” is fast approaching. The clash between a willfully ignorant commander in chief and a politicized intelligence community seems sure to deepen.

..I think the blatant disregard for the threat of foreign influence in our election and the demonization of the Intelligence Community was a turning point for a lot of us,” former branch chief Cindy Otis told me in an email. “. . . Critics can call me ‘The Deep State,’ but I joined the CIA under George W. Bush and the vast majority of people at CIA lean conservative on foreign policy/natsec [national security] issues.”

.. in the 1980s, former director Bush and a host of senior agency operatives joined the Iran-Contra conspiracy. They sought to subvert the Democratic majority in Congress that had banned covert intervention in Central America. The agency’s rank and file did not object. Indeed, many applauded when President Bush pardoned four CIA officials who had been indicted in the scandal.

..After the 9/11 attacks, the consensus in Langley that torture was a permissible, effective and necessary counterterrorism technique no doubt struck many intelligence officers as apolitical common sense. But, of course, adopting “extreme interrogation tactics” was a deeply political decision that President Bush embraced, and President Obama repudiated. The agency deferred to both commanders in chief.

.. The problem with Trump in the eyes of these CIA formers is almost pre-political. The president’s policy decisions matter less than his contempt for intelligence and the system that collects it.
.. When we see things that are blatantly wrong, and the president is responsible, it is fair to speak out,” Bakos said in an interview. “If you’re silent, you’re part of the problem.”

.. Former personnel know better than anyone that the CIA has a license to kill. The agency can spy, capture, bomb and assassinate. It can overthrow governments, foster (or smash) political movements, even re-organize entire societies, according to the inclinations of the president and his advisers.CIA operatives could trust both neoconservative George W. Bush and internationalist Barack Obama with that arsenal because they believed, whatever their politics, both presidents were rational actors. With Trump, they can have no such confidence.

Trump’s contempt for the intelligence profession, weaponized in his “deep state” conspiracy theories, has agency personnel feeling professionally vulnerable, perhaps for the first time. An irrational chief executive has shattered their apolitical pretensions and forced them to re-examine what their core beliefs require.

.. Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to Hayden, told me, “Until now I’ve been mostly a Republican voter at the national level because Republicans shared my views on national security. For a lot of people inside the national security community, that is not necessarily the case anymore. The Republican Party under Trump has abandoned people like us.”

.. When Pfeiffer told me, “Who knows? I might have to vote for Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders in 2020,” he sounded amazed by the possibility but not averse to it. Two years of Trump can do that to a former spy.

The point is not that the CIA is getting more liberal, says John Prados, author of “The Ghosts of Langley,” a history of the agency. Rather, the election results show that the voting bloc that supports the president now skews even more to the hard right. “The migration of [the] political spectrum to the right makes the agency look more liberal than it is,” he said in an interview.

.. “I find it sad — and maybe a few other adjectives — that Brennan now gets a pass for some of [the] things he did as director, just because he’s combatting Trump,” Prados said.

.. “If Trump is going to carry out a secret war against Iran as he seems to want to do, who is our ally?” Prados asked. “Mossad [the Israeli intelligence service]? Who can work with Mossad? The CIA. If that is Trump’s Middle East agenda, the interests of current CIA people and the formers may diverge.”

.. “Trump is not only relying on lies and falsehoods in his public statements, but I have to believe he is pushing back on the realities that are brought to him. Imagine Gina Haspel goes to the White House with a briefer to talk about the latest intel on — fill in the blank:

  • North Korea’s missile program.
  • What China is doing to supplant America in Asia.
  • Where Europe wants to go with NATO.

Does the president listen or care? Or even understand? We’re not in crisis on any one issue, but can we really say the government is functioning?

.. Harrington expects the mistrust between the president and the intelligence community to grow in the next two years.

“No director of any federal agency can turn away the inquiries of the Democratic House,” Harrington said. “CIA people have to deal head on with the consequences of a president who is fundamentally not dealing with reality.”

If there’s one thing to be learned from talking to former CIA personnel, it’s the sense that the CIA system — powerful, stealthy, and dangerous — is blinking red about the latest news of an authoritarian leader in an unstable nation.

Damage Control at Facebook: 6 Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation

In fall 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, was publicly declaring it a “crazy idea” that his company had played a role in deciding the election. But security experts at the company already knew otherwise.

They found signs as early as spring 2016 that Russian hackers were poking around the Facebook accounts of people linked to American presidential campaigns. Months later, they saw Russian-controlled accounts sharing information from hacked Democratic emails with reporters. Facebook accumulated evidence of Russian activity for over a year before executives opted to share what they knew with the public — and even their own board of directors.

In 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump called for a ban of Muslim immigrants, Facebook employees and outside critics called on the company to punish Mr. Trump. Mr. Zuckerberg considered it — asking subordinates whether Mr. Trump had violated the company’s rules and whether his account should be suspended or the post removed.

But while Mr. Zuckerberg was personally offended, he deferred to subordinates who warned that penalizing Mr. Trump would set off a damaging backlash among Republicans.

Mr. Trump’s post remained up.

As criticism grew over Facebook’s belated admissions of Russian influence, the company launched a lobbying campaign — overseen by Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer — to combat critics and shift anger toward rival tech firms.

Facebook hired Senator Mark Warner’s former chief of staff to lobby him; Ms. Sandberg personally called Senator Amy Klobuchar to complain about her criticism. The company also deployed a public relations firm to push negative stories about its political critics and cast blame on companies like Google.

Those efforts included depicting the billionaire liberal donor George Soros as the force behind a broad anti-Facebook movement, and publishing stories praising Facebook and criticizing Google and Apple on a conservative news site.

Facebook faced worldwide outrage in March after The Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian published a joint investigation into how user data had been appropriated by Cambridge Analytica to profile American voters. But inside Facebook, executives thought they could contain the damage. The company installed a new chief of American lobbying to help quell the bipartisan anger in Congress, and it quietly shelved an internal communications campaign, called “We Get It,” meant to assure employees that the company was committed to getting back on track in 2018.

Sensing Facebook’s vulnerability, some rival tech firms in Silicon Valley sought to use the outcry to promote their own brands. After Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, quipped in an interview that his company did not traffic in personal data, Mr. Zuckerberg ordered his management team to use only Android phones. After all, he reasoned, the operating system had far more users than Apple’s.

Washington’s senior Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, raised more money from Facebook employees than any other member of Congress during the 2016 election cycle — and he was there when the company needed him.

This past summer, as Facebook’s troubles mounted, Mr. Schumer confronted Mr. Warner, who by then had emerged as Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress. Back off, Mr. Schumer told Mr. Warner, and look for ways to work with Facebook, not vilify it. Lobbyists for Facebook — which also employs Mr. Schumer’s daughter — were kept abreast of Mr. Schumer’s efforts.

 

Related:

What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide (28 min audio)