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This could change Facebook forever

Last year, we found outthat for the past three years, Facebook had been deleting the messages of Mark Zuckerberg andsome other executives and in the controversy that followed, the company promised that it would then allow all of us to doexactly the same thing. Imagine my surprise this week, when Mark Zuckerbergannounced that he was going to lean hard into privacy. It's a lot of talk. It was 3,200 words in a blogpost that Zuckerberg wrote. To understand what it all means, we're going to have tolook at the big picture. So what did Mark Zuckerbergactually say in his blog post? He said he wanted to bringend to end encryption to all of Facebook's messaging products. That means Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct. One of the things thathe says in his blog post is that encryptionlimits services like ours from seeing the contentflowing through them and makes it much harder for anyone else to access your information. And once your messagesare end to end encrypted, that means that no one fromFacebook or the government will ever be able tounderstand the contents of your messages.

 The second major thingthat was in the blog post was the idea that your messages should no longer be permanent. Zuckerberg speculated that in the future, your messages on Facebookwould disappear by default, after a certain period of time. You could choose to keepthem if you wanted to but just like on Snapchat, how messages disappear when you read them, if you wanted yourFacebook to feel like that, all of a sudden, it could. So with those two ideas out there, Facebook says it is goingto rally around privacy in a way that it never has before. If you've read a story aboutFacebook in the past year, chances are it wasabout a privacy scandal, whether it was CambridgeAnalytica last spring or the biggest data breachin company history last fall. So when Zuckerberg saysthat privacy is now the most important thing to Facebook, a lot of people are skeptical. But let's say that you believe Zuckerberg, what would that mean forFacebook and the rest of us? Well, one of the things that he says is in the future, we're going to want the world to feel less like a town square and more like a living room, so less yelling in pubic,more talking to your friends. If that's true, it has a lot of big implications for Facebook. Number one, the news feedis no longer the most important part of the site. Think about what a big deal that is.

 The news feed is synonymous with Facebook. It's by far the biggest moneymaking product at the company. If we're no longer lookingat the news feed every day, Facebook is a much different business than it ever has been before. Today, Facebook makesit's money by effectively renting it's usersattention to advertisers. In an encrypted messaging app, an advertiser can't see who you are or what you might be interested in, nearly as well as they used to be. Instead, Facebook wants to give businesses an opportunity to letus buy and sell things from within a Messenger or a WhatsApp. There's still a lot of detailsthat need to be worked out. So, in a world where apps are encrypted, not only can advertisersnot see into your messages, governments can't as well. If governments can't accessthe content of user's messages, they're going to havea lot to say about it. We've already seen countrieslike Vietnam and Russia pass laws requiringcompanies like Facebook to store any data thatFacebook is collecting about their citizens locally, presumably so that they canmore easily access that data.

 Facebook is now saying hey, our apps are gonna be encrypted, there's just not gonna bea lot for you to look into. And Zuckerberg speculatesthat Facebook is actually going to be banned in these countries. And then there's China. One of Mark Zuckerberg'sbiggest dreams over the years is that Facebook wouldbecome one of the few American companies to reallybe able to thrive in China. But now that the company is going to enable encrypted messaging,that seems impossible. So encryption has benefits. Advertisers can't target you, governments can't read what you're saying, there are some realdrawbacks to conversation moving from the townsquare to the living room. It's going to be harderto know what people are saying about the politicsinside their own country. We've already seen thisin Brazil and India, two countries whereWhatsApp is very popular. Misinformation has spread rapidly there, inside these closed groups and researchers have had a hard timekeeping track of exactly what's being said. So one result of this encryption might be less visibility intothe public discussion.

It's trade-offs, all the way down. This all may come to nothing,but if it really happens, all of a sudden, Facebookis a very different company. When I say Facebook, youprobably think news feed. In the future when I say Facebook, you might think a group text, you might think a smallgroup that you're in and you might never visitthe news feed at all. So how do we feel about the newer, more privacy friendly Facebook? Well, privacy has a lot of benefits. There are many of us outthere who just wanna talk with our friends and ourfamily and our co-workers, without worrying thatwhatever we're saying is going to come back to haunt us. The fact that Facebook isenabling a new way of doing that, is pretty exciting. At the same time, MarkZuckerberg has a history of making grand pronouncementsthat never come true.

Four years ago, he told us the news feed was gonna transform into video. Two years ago, he published a manifesto saying Facebook was going tobuild social infrastructure, whatever that means, and whether this new, private Facebook comesinto being against some very long odds, is still anyone's guess. So what do you think, you all? Are you gonna be morelikely to use Facebook once it's end to end encrypted anywhere? Let us know in the comments, and if you want to knowway more about Facebook, did you know I write a daily newsletter about social networks and democracy? You can find it at theverge.com/interface. 

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