Margaret Sullivan: 'Facebook can't be trusted to police itself - users must take ownership of their own data'
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has used the company's annual Silicon Valley confab to announce that "the future is private". In one of the most awkward moments I've ever seen captured on video, he smiled broadly as he tried to joke about the supposed change of direction.
"I know that we don't exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly," he said.
No, Zuck, you don't. Facebook is facing more than a dozen international investigations into its history of privacy violations, 'Wired' magazine has reported - "from its years of willy-nilly data sharing to several recent data breaches."
Zuckerberg seemed to think his lame line would get some good-natured guffaws.
The audience of technophiles, though, didn't find it amusing. The reaction was pained silence with a few cringe-induced laughs. The "pivot to privacy" simply isn't believable.
"On privacy, I would suggest what Facebook is doing is more about public relations," venture capitalist Roger McNamee told Hanna Kozlowska of 'Quartz'.
"(It has) tried to put a positive spin on something that they're doing for business reasons, and would have done anyway," he said.
The new privacy gambit involves, in part, unifying Facebook's various messaging apps, allowing messages to disappear more easily, using encryption and shifting communication to smaller groups. Zuckerberg described the latter as moving from "a town square" to "the digital equivalent of the living room".
Here's the problem: These changes are mere tinkering around the edges.
After all, Facebook's business model is built on the opposite of privacy.
It essentially gathers its users' data so that advertisers can target their market most effectively.
Though it cloyingly describes itself as a place for people to connect, Facebook is - in its dark heart - all about selling its own users to advertisers.
These privacy changes don't address any of that, said Mr McNamee, a former Zuckerberg adviser and the author of 'Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe'.
Facebook, of course, has a multitude of other problems. Because of its immense reach, it should recognise itself as a major media company - one that needs to accept the responsibilities of that role.
Facebook took a step in that direction last week, banning hatemongers like 'Infowars'' Alex Jones from the platform.
Whatever Facebook is, it's a financial behemoth, with a market valuation of more than $560bn (€500bn). That's astonishing growth for something started 15 years ago, in Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room.
At the moment, Facebook is facing a potential $5bn (€4.47bn) fine from the Federal Trade Commission for misusing its users' data in the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that worked for US President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and got access to user data.
(That would be a record-setting fine from the FTC, but far from devastating to the company, given the depth of its pockets.)
Part of that settlement will include setting up positions at the company to monitor user privacy. And who will be the chief compliance officer?
Absurdly enough, it could end up being Zuckerberg himself, Politico reported last week - the very definition of a conflict of interest.
While government regulators worldwide struggle with what to do, and while Facebook cloaks its promises in platitudes, its users would be wise to turn elsewhere for protection: to themselves.
Quitting Facebook is one viable option. Celebrities such as Cher and Elon Musk and tech journalists including Walt Mossberg have announced that they were walking away as part of the #DeleteFacebook movement.
Plenty of non-celebrities have followed suit, but it hasn't made much of a dent.
The social network (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp) still has two billion users worldwide who find it personally useful or necessary for business purposes.
Short of quitting altogether, there's plenty that users can do to limit the company's relentless data vacuuming.
One example: By manipulating Facebook's privacy settings, you can stop the phone app from constantly tracking your movements and storing this information for years. (Yes, this happens even when you're not actively using the application.)
But you can't accomplish that on Facebook's website, noted Todd Haselton of CNBC last week, offering a step-by-step guide to manually turn it off using the phone app.
It's worth checking. I thought I had already heeded all the precautions, but I was able to take it one step further and delete my entire location history.
It's mildly comforting to know that is now where it belongs: in the digital dustbin.
Facebook users who choose not to quit altogether owe it to themselves to take these protective measures.
Because so far, governments worldwide have not figured out what to do with this gang of digital pirates.
And Facebook - despite its vaunted pivot to privacy - can't be trusted to police itself.(© The Washington Post)