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With proposed changes, is Facebook sincere about prioritizing privacy?

While Facebook remains one of the world's largest companies, it has lost some public trust in recent years, due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 election and privacy issues. Now, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is embarking upon a major shift to the platform’s basic design and approach. Jeffrey Brown talks to The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While Facebook remains one of the largest companies in the world, it has lost some public trust in recent years.

    That erosion is due, in part, to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian interference in the 2016 election and problems with privacy.

    As Jeffrey Brown reports, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, now says he want to shift his vision of what Facebook is.

    For the record, the "NewsHour" has some partnerships with Facebook.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A redesign, but also a kind of rethink, as Mark Zuckerberg seeks to turn the social network into a platform more focused on private encrypted communications between individuals and groups.

    During a presentation yesterday, Zuckerberg showed how the traditional Facebook platform would look in the future: less of the public News Feed, more message-based.

    But as it tries to change, it's worth remembering Facebook earned nearly $56 billion in revenues last year, much of that from targeted advertising tied to public posts. And this all comes as the company has said it expects it may be fined up to $5 billion for privacy violations by the FTC.

    Elizabeth Dwoskin is the Silicon Valley correspondent for The Washington Post. She interviewed Mark Zuckerberg earlier this week and joins us now.

    Thanks for joining us again, Elizabeth.

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    Thanks.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, what do you see as the most important change here?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    The most important change, hands down, is that Zuckerberg is consciously making a decision to limit Facebook's ability to collect data.

    Right now, especially on Facebook Messenger, they can read your messages if they need to. That helps them with law enforcement. That helps them fight Russian operatives and other bad actors. And it also helps them in their massive ad business.

    But now they're going to go to an encryption model, which means they won't be able to read the content of their messages.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, why are they doing this?

    And we should say this involves integrating all of Facebook's assets, right, including WhatsApp and Instagram.

    What is he saying, what is Mark Zuckerberg telling you about why they're doing this?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    So, Zuckerberg would say it's all about privacy.

    But one thing you have to understand about Mark Zuckerberg is that he's a master of following trends and getting credit for leading those trends. First of all, Tim Cook, Apple CEO, has been talking about privacy for a while.

    And you're — if you're an iPhone user communicating with another iPhone user, your messages are already encrypted. WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, is already encrypted. But that's not because of Facebook. That's because the former founders of WhatsApp, who both left the company in frustration, believed in encryption.

    The other thing is that Facebook is trying to restore its reputation with the public. So it makes sense to talk about privacy. But, remember, this is a person who just 10 years ago really said privacy is dead and everything should be public.

    So it's definitely a 180 for the company and for Zuckerberg. But there's a little bit of — I don't know if you want to call it a bait and switch here, but just to remember, Facebook owns Instagram, Facebook owns Facebook.

    And Instagram is growing like gangbusters. And Instagram is a public social network. So they're not saying, we're going to get rid of the public social network. They're just saying that we're going to double down on messaging, which, by the way, is where the world is going anyway.

    Think about how often you text message vs. post on a social network these days.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And what about the business model? What are they saying about how they will make money with this new approach?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    So, in my interview with Zuckerberg, I asked him about that very directly. And he said, you know, I'm not sure how we're going to profit off this transition to messaging, but I'm confident we will be fine.

    So I'm looking at that, thinking they're going to find a way to collect data about you, even though they can't read the messages. And potentially that will come from the fact that they're making all their services interoperable.

    So you think of Facebook as a social network, but Facebook is a conglomerate of WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook Messenger. And now they're going to unify them. You can send a message to WhatsApp, someone on WhatsApp, through Facebook.

    And so that will allow them to track even more behavior than before and will push people to engage even more than before. And, you know, their real obsession, Zuckerberg said, you know, people — people think, we're all about data. He said, what we're really all about his attention, which I was very surprised to hear.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, very briefly, if you could, in 30 seconds, just since you talked to him, what's your sense of how confident he is about these changes and how committed he is to real change, especially concerning privacy?

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    I think Mark Zuckerberg has always been a person who cared more about human behavior and growth than actual money.

    And we remember he wanted to connect the world and make Facebook free, when people didn't want Facebook to be free. So I think he's confident that, if we win in the attention game, the dollars will follow. And, so far, Wall Street rewards that.

    In terms of the sincerity around privacy, just remember, in order to get people's attention, if Mark says that's the most important thing, you need to know things about them, you need to collect data.

    And it's deeply in that company's DNA to profile your behavior, to understand behavior, to create psychological learning tactics to keep your attention there. And I don't see that going away.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post, thanks very much.

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    Thanks for having me.

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