The problem with Facebook's privacy cafés
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The problem with Facebook's privacy cafés

The social media giant’s latest initiative suggests it is not taking its privacy problem seriously

Late last month, Facebook announced it would briefly open five pop-up cafés around the UK. Steve Hatch, the social media platform’s northern Europe VP, promised they would help visitors “get help and advice on how to change your privacy settings – and all in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee”.

The branded Facebook Cafés appeared for just a couple of days in London, Manchester, Brighton, Edinburgh and Cardiff, offering visitors a privacy checkup and a free cup of coffee – or mint tea. CIM marketing director Gemma Butler calls them a “token gesture”. In the aftermath of a record $5bn fine from the US government for “deceiving” users over the Cambridge Analytica data breach, she believes Facebook could do better: “This is an odd move, poorly executed.”

Certainly, a digital-first entity choosing to meet its public face to face is surprising. “They’re using a traditional channel, which seems at odds with their business model,” says CIM’s Ally Lee-Boone, “and might suggest they don’t really care about communicating this message.” After all, a pop-up café puts the onus squarely on users to take responsibility for securing their online privacy: customers are given a small window in which to get to one of only five sites, which could be a significant distance from them.

“I’d like to see how many people actually have a checkup,” says Butler. “For anyone that is even half-serious about their online privacy, there is already lots of online help available. This is easily accessed and can offer much more detail than the fairly basic advice that’s included in the booklets Facebook is handing out at its cafés.” In short, we’re looking at a company offering an inadequate solution to a problem of its own making.

There is still, remarkably, a significant proportion of Facebook users who don’t wonder about its deleterious effects on their privacy. According to the company’s own research, around half of the UK’s social media users worry about privacy. That leaves another 50% that don’t worry about it. Lee-Boone asks: “What is Facebook doing to reach them? And what is it doing to reach the next generation of users? This really feels like a cursory, short-term measure and it forces you to question Facebook’s motives.”

As we saw with Facebook’s recent rebranding of WhatsApp and Instagram, is its primary aim to effect life-improving changes for its users or to avoid increased regulation? “Instead of asking users to forget everything that’s just happened and trust Facebook again, doing something in partnership with a relevant, objective organisation might have been helpful here,” says Lee-Boone.

Also last month, Facebook launched a ‘Privacy Is Personal’ ad campaign featuring some near-naked everymen and women on a very British-looking beach. “It’s an impactful ad,” says Lee-Boone, “but there is a major message mismatch here. On one hand, the ad delivers a clear and concise message, from which you might infer that privacy is now a priority. On the other, Facebook also seems to be suggesting that the privacy issue can be resolved with a generic 10-minute chat in a café.”

With a business model that relies on knowing as much as possible about its users – and selling that information to third parties – there is an argument that Facebook is fundamentally, existentially opposed to privacy. The more it knows, the more valuable its service to advertisers. So long as this is the case, its marketing efforts around privacy are – by design or not – likely to have all the lasting impact of a two-day pop-up.

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Tobias Gourlay Journalist
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