Facebook redesign, privacy push highlight Zuckerberg's efforts to leave troubles behind

“I believe that the future is private,” Zuckerberg said from the stage.
Image: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes his keynote speech during Facebook Inc's annual F8 developers conference in San Jose
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes his keynote speech during Facebook Inc's annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California on April 30, 2019.Stephen Lam / Reuters

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By David Ingram

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Facebook has a new look — and a familiar outlook.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off his company’s biggest yearly event Tuesday by rolling out a redesign of the company’s apps and adding to his recent comments that the future of Facebook is focused on privacy.

But his keynote presentation was thin on details related to the company’s new privacy efforts, which come as the social network faces sustained scrutiny from politicians and privacy advocates over how it has handled user data.

“I believe that the future is private,” Zuckerberg said from the stage at Facebook’s F8 conference.

“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I get that we don’t have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” he added. “But I’m committed to doing this well, and to starting a new chapter for our products.”

Zuckerberg, speaking to a convention hall full of software developers, said the redesign of the Facebook app and website would happen immediately, and he described planned changes to its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram apps that he said would make the services faster, more private and more social.

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Zuckerberg did not announce any changes to the ways that Facebook collects or uses the personal information that fuels its lucrative online advertising business. He also mostly sidestepped questions about how the company address the spread of hate speech, including on its private messaging service WhatsApp.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the F8 Facebook Developers conference on April 30, 2019 in San Jose, California.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

In the case of Instagram, the company said it would begin testing this week a way to hide “like” counts from view, as a way to discourage unhealthy levels of vanity.

Facebook users and investors have anticipated big changes coming to Facebook after two years of scandals about the social media company’s growing role in society and politics.

In March, Zuckerberg published a manifesto on Facebook’s future that emphasized private, encrypted messaging rather than the scrolling feeds of public posts that have made the company wealthy. People "want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room," and less in an online "town square," he wrote.

Zuckerberg on Tuesday reiterated that vision and pledged to roll out details to put it into place.

At least some of the changes are cosmetic, including a change in the color schemes for Facebook’s app and website. “The app isn’t even blue anymore,” he said.

Other changes appeared to be more substantive. An updated Messenger app will have a tab dedicated to friends, including any “stories” that they post to Facebook. Facebook will also roll out a Messenger app for desktop computers, which Zuckerberg said has been in high demand, and a new “lightspeed” version of the Messenger mobile app that would be twice as fast as “other leading apps,” he said.

Eventually, the company says, communications on Messenger would be end-to-end encrypted by default, though it was not immediately clear how soon Facebook would make that change.

Zuckerberg presented messaging as a business challenge for Facebook, saying that he wants Messenger to be the fastest, simplest, most reliable and most secure of all the many messaging apps available to consumers on smartphones.

Bigger changes could be years in the making, and consumers might not see much difference in Facebook’s core services, such as the feeds on Facebook and Instagram.

Speaking to Wall Street analysts, Zuckerberg said last week that he did not expect a significant impact to Facebook’s ad business in the immediate future.

Facebook is at the center of a worldwide debate over whether social media has gained too much influence. The technology has made it easier to spread misinformation in elections, as in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, and the United Nations has blamed Facebook for allowing the spread of hate speech ahead of the reported genocide in Myanmar.

Governments on four continents have recently proposed or approved legislation that would lead to financial penalties or even jail time for internet firms and their employees if they fail to remove violent material or other harmful content.