Why Facebook’s Promises of Privacy Reform Still Feel Insincere

The Facebook F8 developer conference always causes a stir. Mark Zuckerberg emerged from his social media hive to dish on the latest changes to Facebook apps and products, delivering a sense of excitement and certainty for shareholders, media and users alike.

Zuck’s overriding message on Tuesday? “The Future is Private.”

For a brand currently awash in controversy with users AND the government, the timing of this message seemed somewhat peculiar, but also strategic. For a company that lines its pockets with audience data for advertisers, it seemed almost unthinkable.

In a world where users are used to sharing every aspect of their daily life—from swan-shaped potatoes to engagements, promotions, gender reveals and major milestones—privacy is a concern, but sharing habits overrule. Can Facebook flip the script and retrain users to retreat into gated communities? The redesign released during F8 shoves the news feed down the page, while promoting Stories, groups and messaging to the top.

Users flocked to social media years ago to engage and connect with individuals on a grander level. Instant gratification through likes and direct contact with celebrities or businesses only took the tap of a button. The public sphere swung wide open.

But with that freedom came a darker side: endless opinions of the masses, hate speech and access to personal data. And hackers were not the only ones accessing that personal data. The very company opening the gates of communication utilized personal data to scale the platform, keep up with the flow of new members and let advertisers micro-target them all.

Zuckerberg seemed to be grasping with the magnitude of the importance of privacy, particularly with the F.T.C. possibly slapping the company with a $5 billion fine for privacy violations stemming back to 2011. The New York Times reported that the F.T.C. is looking to negotiate with Facebook, looking to “create new positions at the company focused on strengthening its privacy practices.”

Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook’s current issues with public trust at F8. "I get that a lot of people think we're not serious about this," Zuckerberg said. "I know we don't have the strongest reputation on privacy, to put it lightly."

However with Facebook, users saw the privacy issue at F8 go two steps forward and then two steps back. The company polled users during Zuckerberg’s live-streamed keynote, once again collecting data. Facebook did not include a disclosure inside the poll box saying that other Facebook friends could see when you took the poll—and yet, a box pops up showing who else has taken the poll, disbursing private content.

Other companies, like Google, are taking advantage of this position and taking greater strides to assure the public on privacy issues. Just this week Google announced a rollout of settings that will let users delete location data, picked up by its apps, automatically.

Creating a transparent dialogue with the public, and encouraging them to participate in what they choose to share is a step in the right direction for technology companies. This can still include them in the freedom of that public sphere, but also ensures them that companies have their back, and are looking out for their best interests, not just the bottom line.

It remains to be seen what the future holds for Facebook privacy issues, and how users utilize the platform with this overhaul. Facebook needs to realize that empty promises without real action abandon user trust.