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Facebook’s privacy conundrum

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has to do something about his firm’s reputation for data privacy, but it could it require destroying its own core business model.

At the F8 developer conference this week, Zuckerberg has been making claims no-one is surprised to hear. Facebook is all about user privacy, its not about making money anymore, just about offering a service its users care about. The PR machine is shifting through the gears, Facebook has to save its reputation before it’s too late.

This is perhaps the worst kept secret in Silicon Valley; Facebook does not care about data privacy, or at least it hasn’t cared in the past. It cares it was caught flamboyantly prancing around, above and all over the concept, but few will be surprised executives prioritized profits over privacy.

But here is the crossroads the firm faces; be disrupted or destroyed.

This of course sounds very dramatic, and perhaps we are taking poetic licence, but there is at least an element of accuracy to the statement. Zuckerberg needs to fundamentally redefine the business, moving away from the tried and tested business model, before regulators and legislators take Facebook out at the knees.

At the conference, Zuckerberg has been outlining Facebook’s journey forward. Updates will focus on creating a more ‘private’ experience, ushering users towards groups and chat locations which, theoretically, will prevent Facebook from fuelling its data machine. It seems the new business will be focused around two of the companies most popular applications, Messenger and WhatsApp, though this could potentially kill the tried and tested Facebook business model; hyper-targeted advertising.

One example of this is an update which will allow users to invite connections to watch videos in a private message or group. In years gone, this would be sacrilege to Facebook executives. If it is private, how can it be used to tune the advertising machine? Where is the opportunity to make money?

This is the risk Facebook is facing up to; its traditional business model is under threat. Its reputation for handling privacy is in tatters and the world is turning against Facebook. If it continues on the path of collecting and harvesting data in this manner, someone will eventually step in and stop it. Governments and regulators are cracking down on the data sharing economy, and Facebook has been made enemy number one.

But all is not lost. Facebook still has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, the core social media platform is salvageable. It might look like a digital Yellow Pages today, but it by-gone years, it was a genuinely engaging platform. Somewhere along the line executives got grabby and started prioritising advertising over engagement, and the platform suffered as a result. If Facebook can rediscover the magic of old, all will be forgiven, such is the short-term memory of many consumers.

This might mean having to sacrifice the hyper-targeted advertising model, but if Zuckerberg’s claims on privacy are to be believed, Facebook might be moving away from it anyway.

Fortunately, with a reinvigorated platform, which people trust and enjoy, Facebook can bolt services on and beside it, as opposed to through it. This is perfectly feasible business model; running the platform as a loss-leader, maintaining a more transparent advertising business and also using the credibility to monetize premium services. And it might be a sensible direction for Facebook to go. It has worked before and will work again.

To make this idea work, Facebook will need a few things. Firstly, the ambition to explore news ideas. Secondly, smart people. And finally, R&D funds. Facebook has all these things in abundance.

Facebook has already shown its ambition with the launch of AR/VR, video platforms, online market places, dating applications and enterprise services (just to name a few). It has and will continue to attract some of the worlds most intelligent engineers and business people. And finally, Facebook has bags of cash.

This of course is taking Zuckerberg at his word. This might be nothing more than a ploy to generate positive PR. The hyper-targeting advertising model might simply be evolving with the help of small print and clever distractions. But, Zuckerberg surely is smarter than this. Another case of misleading the general public would surely be a step too far.

Zuckerberg might be waking up to the fact he cannot hide from this horrid and distasteful reputation he and his firm has developed. Perhaps Facebook has realised it needs to fundamentally change its business model. Maybe Zuckerberg wants to disrupt his own business before governments and regulators try to destroy it.

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