Data Privacy Manifestos: Competitive Advantage or the Start of Something Bigger?Facebook is the latest company to weigh in with a corporate manifesto focused on privacy. Though it's a welcome trend, only time will tell how many follow through.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg became the latest tech leader to release a corporate manifesto focused on digital privacy and the future of the Internet. In a blog post, Zuckerberg outlined his company's pivot to becoming a "privacy-focused messaging and social network platform."
After years of data breaches, data mining, and nonconsensual data sharing, technologist manifestos suggest the future of the Internet. Tech giants see the regulatory writing on the wall. Pessimists may see these manifestos as a preemptive strategy, while optimists may point to a cultural shift within the tech industry. Either way, technologist manifestos show the growing prioritization of privacy, which is disrupting business models, branding, and product road maps across the tech industry. While the first step is acceptance, action is required to drive the business and reputational benefits of privacy.
Since late 2017, public opinion has shifted significantly in favor of greater regulation for tech giants. Many point to the Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal as the tipping point, but the shift was already underway by the time the public learned about it. Between November 2017 and February 2018, a 15-point shift in favor of data privacy regulation occurred equally across both political parties. Privacy now ranks as the most important social issue for Americans.
These shifts reflect the beginning of a groundswell that led to a year of testimony by Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as victims of high-profile breaches, which continued earlier this month, with Marriott and Equifax executives testifying to a Senate subcommittee. As public opinion has changed and executives found themselves interrogated for their own personally identifiable information during testimonies, it became clear that privacy was a competitive advantage for tech companies.
With its manifesto, Facebook joins the ranks of other tech giants in embracing privacy as a competitive advantage. Last year, Microsoft declared its commitment to the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, extending the privacy rights not just to EU citizens but to its consumers across the globe. This was in sharp contrast to Google and Facebook's decentralized approach to the regulation, with unequal privacy applications. In November, Apple CEO Tim Cook's keynote address in Brussels chastised the data industrial complex and reiterated Apple's commitment to strong privacy laws. He leveraged this platform to distinguish Apple from the tech giants that monetize personal data. And just last month, Cisco advocated for US federal data privacy regulation, and similarly criticized the monetization of personal data.
In each of these manifestos, privacy serves as a business differentiator and is especially aimed at competitors without explicitly mentioning them. The Facebook manifesto is no different. Zuckerberg never mentions Facebook's ad-based business model and instead takes a stance against working in countries with poor human rights and privacy records. He acknowledges the global diffusion of data localization legislation that requires data stored within sovereign boundaries and often contains a government access component. By refusing to adhere to those policies, Facebook signals that it's willing to lose market access if it means weakening privacy and security. Following the manifesto's playbook to distinguish itself from competitors, Facebook punches at both Apple and Google through the secure data storage promise. Apple has been forced to host data and even encryption keys in China to maintain market access, while Google's Project Dragonfly was working on a Chinese search engine and was revealed only after information about it was leaked. Facebook, which currently does not have a presence in China, can use data storage as a competitive advantage.
Facebook's manifesto isn't just pushing back against data localization laws but also the growing global encryption debate. End-to-end encryption across all messaging platforms is a core feature of the manifesto. With frequent reference to replicating this privacy-supporting feature of WhatsApp, Zuckerberg takes a strong stand against countries like Australia, which recently passed a bill requiring access to encrypted data, as well as India, which is currently debating legislation that would require messaging traceability that would ostensibly break encryption.
Facebook is also flipping the Chinese business model on its head. Zuckerberg's vision includes not just creating a privacy-based platform for messaging and social networks but also aspires for the company to be a one-stop shop for finances, health, and more. By the end of the post, it appears Zuckerberg is attempting to build an American WeChat — the Chinese app that dominates that market but is also linked to the government and often offers personal data when requested from the government.
Looking ahead, we should expect to see more tech manifestos. So far, corporate executives have produced the majority of them. Given the prominence of the FAANGs, it's likely that Google, Netflix, or Amazon may be next in this trend toward privacy-branding manifestos. But it would be short-sighted to assume only executives produce manifestos; labor also has a voice. Google has already had to contend with one employee manifesto, an open letter protesting Dragonfly, protests against working for the Pentagon, and an employee walkout due to gender inequity and the handling of sexual harassment claims. Meanwhile, Microsoft employees sent their executives an open letter demanding the company cancel a $480 million contract with the US Department of Defense.
These manifestos are tightly connected and indicate the significant inflection point affecting the future of the Internet and privacy as a fundamental right. Manifestos alone are great for messaging, but now is the time for action. Too much is at stake to simply give lip service to privacy as a branding exercise. Expect more organizations to see the competitive advantage in pursuing privacy-preserving business models while being forced to decide between market access and privacy as the two conflict with authoritarian legislation. Those that truly follow through on their privacy pledges will be the great disruptors and innovators of this century.
Dr. Andrea Little Limbago is the chief social scientist at Virtru, a data privacy and encryption software company, where she specializes in the intersection of technology, cybersecurity, and policy. She previously taught in academia before joining the Department of Defense, ... View Full Bio
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