Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has outlined a “vision” for the future of social media that he said would hinge on privacy.
The plan, announced in a blog post published on Wednesday, follows what some have characterised as an anti-privacy orientation that dates back to Facebook’s days at Harvard, and which has more recently resulted in a series of scandals around the use of personal data gathered via the service.
Zuckerberg acknowledged those controversies, saying he was aware that “we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services”.
But he said the company was planning to build a “privacy-focused communications platform” that he believed would become “even more important than today’s open platforms”.
“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,” he wrote.
He added that current services such as Facebook and Instagram are “the digital equivalent of a town square”, but that people also want to spend time in “the digital equivalent of the living room”.
“Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks,” he wrote.
The comments relate to Facebook’s plans to integrate the back end of its popular messaging services, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, which have about 2.6 billion users between them.
WhatsApp and Instagram were independent companies that Facebook acquired, promising them continued autonomy at the time.
The integration plans, which were first reported in late January, and which haven’t yet been officially acknowledged by the company, are controversial because they would tighten Facebook’s control over the services’ previously independent operations, raising questions around security, competition and data protection.
The move also comes amidst efforts to more tightly regulate social platforms such as Facebook and the way they handle data.
Zuckerberg’s comments appear to be aimed at heading off criticism of its integration efforts.
Without specifically naming Facebook’s existing messaging operations, he said the company’s planned “privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform” would include end-to-end encryption and would reduce the amount of user data permanently stored by Facebook.
He said the company would aim to reassure users that “that their information will only be seen by who they want to see it and won’t all stick around forever”.
He added that Facebook would commit to not storing user data in countries that have a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression”, saying the company was prepared to accept the “tradeoff” that this might bar Facebook from operating in certain countries.
Some industry watchers said the plans appeared to be aimed at heading off regulatory efforts.
Former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist Ashkan Soltani said that by integrating its messaging services’ back-end platforms Facebook could, for instance, avoid the effects of legislation aimed at limiting the way data is shared across separate services.
“While positioned as a privacy-friendly play, its timing suggests a competition play to head off any potential regulatory efforts to limit data sharing across services,” Soltani said on Twitter.
The integration plans involve thousands of Facebook staff and are expected to be completed late this year or early next year, The New York Times reported in January.
Facebook stated at the time that it wanted to “build the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private”.
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