In a bid to regain the confidence of its users, social media giant Facebook has announced several changes to strengthen its protection of users' privacy. As a massive global kingdom of social media that came into being just over a decade ago, Facebook has more than five million active users monthly in Hong Kong. Instagram, another social networking service popular among young people, is also owned by Facebook. However, after a series of scandals in recent years over the abuse of its users' private data, concerns have arisen over whether Facebook has become a leviathan who incessantly digs into the privacy of its users for profits. This has aroused a huge outcry across many places calling for stricter regulation of Facebook. By comparison, Hong Kong society has not shown that much concern about the abuse of private data by social media, and public awareness of online privacy has yet to be strengthened. Social media is a double edged sword. How to maximise its advantages and avoid its negative impacts has become an issue relevant to the whole world. Close attention is needed to see whether Facebook's latest reform will just be old wine in a new bottle.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the founding of Facebook. At its start, the website's membership was limited to Harvard University students only. By now it has grown into a global platform boasting more than 2.3 billion users and has built up the largest database in history with the personal data it accumulated. Facebook has changed the daily habits of people across the world and reshaped the modes of information and communication, political mobilisation as well as advertising and marketing. Statistics show that seven out of ten people in Hong Kong are Facebook users. WhatsApp, a communication app popular among Hong Kong people, and emerging social media platform Instagram are also subsidiaries of Facebook.
A report released by the UK parliament at the beginning of this year described Facebook and its executives as "digital gangsters" who prioritise shareholders' profits over users' privacy rights. The report called for new legislation as soon as possible to regulate social media comprehensively. Similarly, the authorities of the European Union, Germany as well as the US are also investigating whether Facebook has improperly harvested and shared its users' data. Understandably, a major purpose of Facebook's current overhaul is to alleviate the external pressure and to avoid possible regulatory control from the various governments through new legislation. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg vowed to bring about big changes to the company's core policy, saying the future of Facebook would be "privacy focused". But it remains to be seen whether the promises will be fulfilled.
Zuckerberg said the overhaul would involve social platforms including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp and include a set of concrete measures. For example, communication via Facebook's Messenger app will be "end to end encrypted" by default and even Facebook will not be able to read them. Moreover, users will have more choice in setting the time limit of keeping the information content shared, without leaving any permanent records. However, he did not say the other ways of collecting Facebook users' data would be changed or restricted. Nor did he mention Facebook had been using or sharing its users' data. The biggest issue is, given Facebook's extreme reliance on advertisement revenue as its profit model, the private data of its users is the income source of the company. Unless this business model is thoroughly changed, it will be very hard to really solve the problem. Zuckerberg said Facebook would develop more new products by, for example, introducing features like mobile payment and e commerce. The US media regards this as Facebook's efforts to imitate the model of China's WeChat so as to reduce its reliance on advertisement revenue. But whether that will work as desired is still a big question.