Facebook has a big, terrifying dream to be the communication backbone for the Western world

facebook mark zuckerberg virtual reality oculus samsungMark Zuckerberg/Facebook

  • Mark Zuckerberg has laid out a vision of how Facebook services will become the backbone for the way people live online.
  • He seems to be hinting at a future where it will be impossible to go a day without touching a Facebook service of some kind.
  • That is similar to WeChat's current model in China, with the popular app handling messages, payments, communicating with businesses, and even ordering cabs.
  • WeChat has 1 billion daily active users in China, and life there is basically impossible without it.
  • Facebook's record over the past 12 months means we should think carefully before we allow Zuckerberg to evolve his service into the WeChat of the West.

Before Facebook acquired WhatsApp, the company was for a lot of its users, not a "must-have" service.

It's fun to post photos, find old school friends, and organize events through Facebook, and the service brings a host of social benefits. But delete it from your life, and you won't be much worse off. The exception might be the businesses which rely on Facebook to advertise their wares.

Post-WhatsApp though, Facebook is much closer to becoming what we might call a fundamental service.

If WhatsApp disappeared from the world, it would have a negative impact on people's lives. WhatsApp has 1.5 billion monthly users and it is popular not just with regular users swapping photos, but journalists, politicians, and activists using the platform to conduct important work, much of it through private, contained communications. It is an essential communications tool.

Read more: Facebook says it will move to encrypted, auto-deleting messages - and warns that some countries might decide to ban it

In a lengthy blog on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaned into the idea of turning Facebook into a fundamental business. That is, a business that would become essential to people's daily lives because it is practically, and not just emotionally, useful.

This is the key section of Zuckerberg's post, where he outlines how this version of Facebook might work (emphasis ours):

"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."

The short version of this might read: Use us more, and use us for really important, vital stuff.

Zuckerberg's vision already exists in China

FILE PHOTO: A WeChat Pay system is demonstrated at a canteen as part of Tencent office inside TIT Creativity Industry Zone in Guangzhou, China May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File PhotoFILE PHOTO: A WeChat Pay system is demonstrated at Tencent office inside in GuangzhouThomson Reuters

There is currently no all-encompassing platform in the West that handles messaging, payments, and business in the way that Zuckerberg envisages. (One Twitter commenter suggested email - let's return to that later.)

Such a service does exist in China, where Facebook has had trouble getting a foothold. That's WeChat.

The New York Times, in a prescient video about Western firms copying Chinese apps, describes WeChat as a "Swiss Army knife." Life in modern China is essentially impossible without WeChat, given the app comprises messaging, payments, and banking all in one place. Think of it like WhatsApp, PayPal, Apple Pay, Venmo, Uber, and elements of Amazon combined.

WeChat has 1 billion daily active users, almost exclusively in China. Compare this to WhatsApp, which also has around 1 billion daily active users but spread across 180 countries.

Let's come back to that point about email, which serves some of WeChat's functions in the West. Email has never been a big deal in China. Reliable statistics are difficult to find, but according to official figures from 2015, less than a third of China's mobile population uses email. Compare that to the average European or American worker, who probably refreshes their email every few seconds on their way to work.

Zuckerberg, then, is looking beyond email and beyond Facebook's current role as a mostly non-essential internet toy. He appears to be envisaging a future where people touch a Facebook-owned service for every aspect of their daily lives, just like WeChat in China.

There are ideas in Zuckerberg's post that are worth praising, such as his commitment to keeping data away from "over-reaching" governments. But the idea of Facebook becoming any sort of backbone to our daily lives is a terrifying concept, and we only need to look at the past 12 months to see why.

Promising to encrypt people's data is great, but Facebook hasn't earned our trust

facebook zuckerberg cambridge analytica trial AP3Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Facebook has done little to deserve anyone's trust.

This is not just the slipshod way it built its earlier business, which directly led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but also the fact the company is manipulative with the truth.

Some examples: Facebook claims users have "complete control" over their data when, in fact, Facebook has repeatedly handed that data to third parties like phone manufacturers without telling anyone. The company continues to track users' location, even when location tracking is switched off. Tools intended to explain to users why they're seeing creepily relevant ads aren't really up to scratch. The company also deceived the public about how it was conducting a secretive research programme on teenage internet users.

These are shocking, precisely because the company is already so big and has so much of our data. What might Facebook quietly do with our information if we hand over more, and it becomes essential to our daily lives?

Zuckerberg says end-to-end encryption will mean Facebook can't read the messages people are sending. But it will still gain a bunch of additional data points it didn't have access to before.

If you decide to make secure payments through this new platform, Facebook may gain a better understanding of everything from who your utility provider is to how frequently you fly abroad. It will understand whether you buy something as a direct result of seeing it on Instagram. It doesn't need to see the actual content of your messages to slurp that data.

And while Zuckerberg promised he would keep all this additional information safe and secure, it isn't a leap to imagine that the firm will use its new status as an essential service to shore up its own dominance. We should think carefully about whether it's deserving.

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