NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards has flagged possible extremist content and revenge porn concerns with Facebook founder Mark Zucker's plan for a "privacy-focussed" version of his service - revealed this morning.
Zuckerberg posted that his company plans "to build a privacy-focused social platform. We already have public spaces - the digital equivalents of the town square - and we think there should be a digital equivalent of the living room as well."
He added, "Our plan is 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 with end-to-end encryption, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that."
More details will be unveiled at Facebook's F8 developer conference next week.
"One thing I would want to keep an eye on is whether this newfound commitment to privacy in the so-called 'lounge spaces' as opposed to the 'public square' might exacerbate some of the harms Facebook has already caused and challenges it continues to face," Edwards told the Herald.
"It is not clear whether these encrypted private channels might facilitate the sharing of harmful material such as child exploitation and extremist content, and privacy unfriendly content like revenge porn.
"Encryption has the potential to absolve the platform from responsibility for moderating content because they can't see it. That could potentially run counter to what the PM and other governments such as Australia and the UK are trying to achieve with greater oversight of online platforms.
"I will watch these developments with interest and some healthy skepticism."
Tech commentators approached by the Herald were also dubious.
"Telling the world you're building a privacy-based service when you face up to US$5 billion $7.5b) in fines from US regulators for abusing privacy is premium grade chutzpah," Bill Bennett says.
"Facebook has shown time and again it can't be trusted with privacy, yet billions of people keep coming back for more. Zuckerberg has no credibility on privacy."
The Auckland tech writer and commentator quit Facebook in protest at a string of privacy and data breach scandals.
But he's also realistic; he acknowledges that most people have stayed on the social network.
And that while many might see Zuckerberg's plan for a privacy-focused service as akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, "Logic says his plan shouldn't succeed, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did," Bennett says.
He adds, "Looking at the share price movement, it certainly seems Facebook's investors are impressed."
Facebook's stock surged this morning, adding around US4.6b to Zuckerberg's personal fortune, as investors were made aware that the US$5b fine would draw a line under the regulator's efforts (and to put it into context, the company made a net profit of US$22.1b last year.
Tech commentator Paul Brislen is equally dubious.
"Zuckerberg is quite right - we do need better controls on our privacy and on our ability to decide what we reveal and what we keep to ourselves," Brislen says.
"However, Facebook has not covered itself in glory on the issue of privacy and will need to do a lot more than just talk about it to regain the trust the company has lost. Facebook has refused to be bound by existing privacy laws in New Zealand and other jurisdictions - I can't see the company changing its approach now."
He adds, "Facebook's business model is built on the basis of users sharing information widely and without a second thought. Users are less willing to do that and want more control over their own information. Whether Facebook can change to meet that expectation remains to be seen."
Last year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg raised the prospect of users paying for a premium service. However, if its users have to shell out to ensure a private experience, it could attract more regulatory heat.
Earlier, Edwards has accused Facebook of being "pathological liars" and of "doubling down" on privacy abuse after promising to clean up its act.
Canadian Privacy Commissioner piles in
Earlier today, Canada's Privacy Commissioner said at a press conference held to discuss "serious contraventions" of Canadian law in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and his decision to file federal charges:
"Facebook's refusal to act responsibly is deeply troubling given the vast amount of sensitive personal information users have entrusted to this company.
"Their privacy framework was empty, and their vague terms were so elastic that they were not meaningful for privacy protection."
The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted a Facebook policy - since abandoned - that allowed an advertiser to access the data of not just people who took a quiz, but their friends who had not in any way opted in. Some 64,000 NZ Facebook users had their data unwittingly shared.
More recent Facebook privacy controversies have centred on the social network allowing major phone makers to access Facebook data without a user's permission, login and password information being improperly stored as plain text and, earlier this month, some 540 million Facebook records were found to be publically accessible on Amazon Web Services servers, including identification numbers, comments, reactions and account names - all information that Facebook has shared with numerous third-party developers.