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Wednesday September 30th, 2020 9:23PM

'Privacy-focused' Facebook puts the spotlight on groups

By The Associated Press
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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Facebook is launching a major redesign of its app and website built around letting people connect with groups that share their interests — an attempt to shift its focus away from the untrammeled public sharing that has helped spread hate speech, extremism, misinformation and livestreamed video of massacres.

The new features, announced Tuesday at the company's annual F8 developer conference, are part of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's broader strategy for countering Facebook's growing array of critics, emboldened regulators and competitors.

Zuckerberg, who at one point stood in front of a giant display reading "The future is private," acknowledged widespread skepticism of his plan to turn Facebook into a "privacy-focused" social network.

"Look, I get that a lot of people aren't sure that we are serious about this," he said to laughter from the crowd. "We are committed to doing this well and to starting a new chapter for our products."

The redesign isn't without risks of its own. When Snapchat rolled out major changes in late 2017, people hated them so much the service lost 3 million users in a single quarter ; analysts think it still hasn't recovered.

Zuckerberg and his chief lieutenant, Sheryl Sandberg, have apologized repeatedly over the past year for Facebook's ever-expanding list of mishaps over privacy, data misuse and security problems. Last week, the company said it is setting aside $3 billion to cover a possible fine from the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations.

Amid all that, Zuckerberg is encouraging Facebook users to rely more on private messaging and "communities." The redesign is structured to make it as easy to connect with groups as it is with individual friends, he said.

The groups cover a wide range of interests and topics — hiking, hair care, parenting, rare diseases. Recommended groups will appear on users' homepages. (The redesign will also do away with Facebook's signature blue banner.)

Groups have also caused controversy for the company, especially as communities pop up around extremist topics. Facebook is working to remove groups that have "harmful content," Zuckerberg said, and to de-emphasize those that share misleading information.

The redesigned mobile app is live for U.S. users now, while the desktop version is coming later this year. This is Facebook's fifth major mobile app redesign since it launched more than a decade ago.

A desktop app for Messenger is also coming later this year. And Messenger will eventually make end-to-end encryption the default setting for all messages, rather than an opt-in choice. End-to-end encryption protects messages as they travel between people, making it impossible to see them unless you are on the sending or receiving end.

Inside WhatsApp — by far Facebook's most secure app — the company is making status updates more private. Only people in each other's contact books will be able to see such updates.

The privacy changes extend to Instagram as well. Facebook executives say the company is starting to test new features that hide "likes" from photos. Users will still be able to see how many likes their photos get, but the number won't appear at the bottom of each post.

Facebook's dating service will come to U.S. users later this year. Facebook also announced a way to date friends — but only if each user separately adds the other to his or her own "secret crush" list.

Zuckerberg said last week that Facebook's focus on private communications will be built out over the next five years or more.

A few years ago, the company probably would have rolled out these changes right away and dealt with problems as they came up, Zuckerberg said. But no longer. "We have to change a lot of the ways we run this company," he said.

Last year's F8 conference took place weeks after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political data-mining firm accessed personal data on tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent.

___

AP Technology writer Rachel Lerman contributed to this report from San Francisco.

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