SAN JOSE, California — Facebook’s apology tour continued this week as the social media platform hosted F8, the company’s yearly developer conference that doubles as a chance for it to launch new features and show off its technology.
“This Year, We Get It and We’re Working to Fix It” could have been displayed as a banner at the entrance to the convention center.
“We will never be unprepared for this again,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in opening remarks that touched on the criticism that Facebook has faced after a whistleblower revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that worked on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, had used surreptitiously harvested Facebook data to target political ads.
Much of the conference’s opening day was spent reassuring developers to stick with Facebook.
“I know the vast majority of you are focused on building good things,” Zuckerberg said.
Growing skepticism about the effect of Facebook on not just politics but society at large didn’t stop thousands of attendees from filling the massive ballroom at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. The sheer number of developers and executives in the packed sessions showed that Facebook remains a behemoth in the tech industry.
Lia Haberman, director of social media for Livestrong.com, said that previous conferences have provided a chance for Facebook to showcase its cutting-edge technology. This year, not so much. The most-talked-about highlight of the event was Facebook’s announcement of an upcoming dating feature.
“I remember last year, there was all this amazing, revolutionary stuff that was going to happen, and you were going to be able to use Facebook with your mind, no voice, no touch, just thinking bots, and all these fantastic things were going to happen,” Haberman said. “This year has been the apology tour.”
It wasn’t just Zuckerberg offering a mix of mea culpas and better days ahead. Dan Rose, Facebook's vice president of partnerships, acknowledged during his speech that the company’s rise in the news industry had “created a lot of disruption” and “unfortunately, created a lot of abuse” because the company “failed to anticipate the bad.”
“This is a really important moment for our company,” Rose added.
The tone may have been darker than in years past, but Kurt Wagner said the event wasn’t all that different. Wagner, a senior editor at Vox Media’s Recode, in which NBCUniversal is an investor, is covering his fifth F8.
“I’ve been surprised at how normal this feels,” he said.
“I was kind of anticipating given all the CA stuff that there would be a different feeling," he added, referring to Cambridge Analytica. "Either more pressure or maybe even some developers who were upset like a protestor or someone who would boo [Zuckerberg] while he was on stage.”
Not only was there no booing, Wagner noted that the crowd cheered when Zuckerberg said all in attendance would be receiving a free Oculus Go, the new virtual reality device that the company released on Monday. "People were excited," Wagner said."People lost their minds.”
On Tuesday, Facebook also announced the launch of new privacy capabilities including allowing people to wipe their browsing history on the platform and the option to opt out of the company’s tracking of user activity across the internet.
Those are the most significant changes yet since the start of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and come as Facebook and every other tech company is preparing for the enforcement of the General Data Protection Regulation, a new European law that introduces restrictions around the collection and use of user data.
Europe has generally taken the lead on data privacy issues. Sam Eckert, a developer from Germany who happened to be celebrating in his 18th birthday at F8, said he was surprised at the U.S. reaction to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, adding that consumers in Germany had already been aware of personal data abuse.
“What did surprise us was that somehow for the first time the majority of Americans also got that something might be wrong,” Eckert said.
Eckert said that the privacy changes Facebook announced at the conference are “a step in the right direction” and he hopes “that they will do now what they say, but features like clearing your history should have been there for some time now.”
Paul Reichardt, who works with Eckert to grow their bitcoin tracking app, Bittracker, echoed the idea of the “Clear History” feature as a seemingly “basic thing that should have been there from the beginning, not advertised as a new feature.
“That’s of the more German perspective: We need to now see action," Reichardt said.