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Editorial : FB's reform: old wine in a new bottle?

【明報專訊】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.

明報社評2019.05.03:社交媒體濫用私隱 fb改革換湯未換藥

社交媒體巨擘facebook(下稱fb)宣布多項變革加強私隱保障,盼望重建用戶信心。短短十多年,fb在全球建立起龐大社交媒體王國,在港每月活躍用戶逾500萬,年輕人常用的Instagram亦屬fb麾下,然而近年一系列濫用私隱資料醜聞,令人關注fb已變成利維坦怪獸(Leviathan),不斷搜刮用戶私隱牟利,各地要求加強監管呼聲高漲,相比下香港社會對社交媒體濫用私隱資料問題,似乎並未太過關心,網上私隱意識有待提升。社交媒體是雙刃劍,如何趨利避害,已成國際課題,fb今次改革會否換湯不換藥,需要密切留意。

今年是fb成立的第15個年頭。fb由僅限哈佛大學學生加入,變成一個在全球擁有超過23億用戶的平台,累積起史上規模最大的個人數據資料庫。fb改變了世界各地民眾的日常生活習慣,亦重塑了資訊傳播、政治動員以及廣告行銷模式。資料顯示,現時香港平均每10人就有7人用fb,港人常用的通訊軟件WhatsApp和新興社交媒體Instagram,亦是fb旗下公司。

今年初英國國會發表報告,形容fb是「數碼流氓」,將股東利益置於用戶私隱權利之上,建議盡快立法全面監管社交網站。此外,歐盟、德國和美國當局也在調查fb不當收集和分享用戶數據。這次fb改革,一大目的相信是要緩和外界壓力,設法避免各地政府立法規管。fb創辦人朱克伯格矢言大改公司核心政策、未來fb將以「私隱為中心」,是否做到仍需拭目以待。

朱克伯格表示,今次變革,同時涵蓋fb、Instagram與WhatsApp等社交平台,包括多項具體措施,諸如將Messenger發送的信息預設為「端對端加密」,fb方面亦無法讀取內容;另外,用戶分享信息內容,可採用更多方式設定保留時限,不會留下永久紀錄。然而朱克伯格並未表示會改變或限制fb在其他途徑蒐集用戶數據,亦未觸及fb如何使用和分享用戶數據。fb面對的最大問題,在於盈利模式極度依靠廣告收入,用戶私隱資料就是公司財源,除非徹底改變這一經營模式,否則很難真正解決問題。朱克伯格提到,fb將開發更多產品,諸如加入流動支付和電商等功能,美國傳媒形容,fb想仿效中國微信的模式,藉以減少對廣告收入的依賴,然而能否如願仍是一大問號。

■Glossary

leviathan : a very large and powerful thing

emerging : starting to exist

overhaul : an examination of a machine or system, including doing repairs on it or making changes to it

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