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Facebook’s pivot to privacy: Is Zuckerberg building a new “mega” platform?

With Facebook’s reputation cratering precipitously over the past year, the company has suddenly decided to change direction. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who had quite categorically announced the death of privacy earlier, is now outlining a privacy-focused vision for social networking.

“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,” Zuckerberg declared in a lengthy post on Facebook Notes.

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

“That would mark a sharp reversal for Facebook, which has grown into one of the world’s wealthiest companies by inventing exotic new methods of personal data collection,” The Verge’s Casey Newton writes.

Publishers, having been burnt by Facebook’s policy reversals a number of times before, are naturally suspicious of Facebook’s surprise announcement, as evidenced by Washington Post’s tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler’s tweet:

“It’s one thing to promise a newer, more private Facebook — and another thing to deliver it,” says Casey Newton, Silicon Valley Editor. “Facebook has the worst reputation on privacy of any major tech company, and a 3,200-word blog post doesn’t do much by itself to dig the company out.”

Zuckerberg insists they are going all-in in this new “privacy-focused” direction, even if the company’s services get blocked in some countries. “As we build our infrastructure around the world, we’ve chosen not to build data centers in countries that have a track record of violating human rights like privacy or freedom of expression.”

Upholding this principle may mean that our services will get blocked in some countries, or that we won’t be able to enter others anytime soon. That’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make.

WhatsApp would be the model on which this platform would be built, Zuckerberg wrote, referring to the secure messaging platform over a dozen times in his post.

We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp: focus on the most fundamental and private use case — messaging — make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.

An all-new platform?

Interestingly, while outlining his vision, Zuckerberg doesn’t say that this is the new direction in which Facebook itself will move.

Rather, over a dozen times, in various ways, he references a platform: “a privacy-focused communications platform,” “a simpler platform,” “a platform for many other kinds of private services,” “social platform,” and most importantly, “platforms for private sharing that could be even more important to people than the platforms we’ve already built.”

He even goes on to say, “many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform.”

We already know that Facebook has been planning to integrate all of its messaging services, a move that would allow users from each of its standalone messaging apps—Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger—to communicate with one another.

In his latest note, Zuckerberg also refers to “the Facebook network,” on which future versions of today’s messenger apps will exist in some manner, stating, “I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network.”

Is it possible that in “the future he hopes to bring about” Mark Zuckerberg is contemplating melding together the various components that comprise Facebook Inc. into a mega-platform… one ring to rule them all?

While that conjecture may have a nefarious ring to it, Facebook’s CEO also emphasized on complete transparency moving forward, saying that they were “going to do this as openly and collaboratively as we can because many of these issues affect different parts of society.”

The decisions we’ll face along the way will mean taking positions on important issues concerning the future of the internet. We understand there are a lot of tradeoffs to get right, and we’re committed to consulting with experts and discussing the best way forward. This will take some time, but we’re not going to develop this major change in our direction behind closed doors.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

This is a major bet by Zuckerberg, who apparently sees more value in pushing Facebook firmly into the messaging territory that’s growing faster than its main social networking business. Given that users are already seeking out private, ephemeral and group-oriented services as alternatives, this may just be his way of skating to where the puck is going.

Implications for publishers

Publishers will most certainly have to adapt to a world where the News Feed becomes a legacy product. Zuckerberg had already expressed his belief that it’s time for the News Feed, the main stream of content on the social network, to make way for Stories, full-screen vertical videos that disappear in 24 hours. This latest announcement continues the march in that direction.

An eventual end of the News Feed also implies that Facebook is placing its bets on a new, as-yet-unknown business model. All of which make one conclusion inevitable: that a major shake-up is imminent in the Facebook world, and publishers need to be nimble enough to navigate the rocky waters toward which we’re irrevocably headed. (Again.)

What’s next?

One thing is for sure. Given the “privacy-focused” direction Facebook is going, China is definitely off the table.

Incidentally, China already has its own mega-platform—in Tencent’s WeChat—an all-in-one multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app that’s “connecting a billion people.”

Pause to think?