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Facebook's F8 gives Zuckerberg another chance to move beyond Cambridge Analytica

The social network is holding its annual developer confab just weeks after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Can CEO Mark Zuckerberg calm people's nerves?

Facebook's headquarters under storm clouds

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg may still need to shed more light on how the social network deals with data -- and clear the air regarding privacy issues.

Josh Edelson/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg has done a lot of apologizing and explaining in the weeks since he was forced to tell the world that data from 87 million Facebook users was co-opted and misused without their -- or his company's -- knowledge.

This week, he gets to say it all over again when he faces about 5,000 developers who gather near Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters each year for its confab, called F8.

The world's largest social network still has to prove it knows how to fix the mess it created, no matter how much Zuck and Facebook want to hype their newest efforts to "make the world more open and connected" (as the company's motto used to say) and no matter how much all those F8 attendees in jeans and hoodies want to capitalize on the 2.2 billion people on its platform.

"People want to feel safe when they're online," said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner. People have always known on some level that they're exchanging some privacy in return for free apps, services and photo storage. But, he said, there's an expectation that comes with it.

"They just want to know that they're not being taken advantage of," Blau said. "I don't think Facebook ever really faced up to that fact, and they're having to right now."

As in the past, this year's two-day F8 event, which takes place in San Jose, California, will be a showcase for new products.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg: "We have a responsibility to keep our community safe and secure ... At the same time, we also have a responsibility to keep moving forward."

James Martin/CNET

The company's been talking a lot lately about artificial intelligence, for example. Its Messenger app has also been the focus of key announcements during this time in past years, such as when it was opened up to other apps. And rumors are that Facebook's newest virtual reality headset, the Oculus Go, will likely make a showing at the event too.

Facebook goes into F8 after allaying concerns that users and advertising partners were giving up on the social network. Last week, the company reported profits that topped Wall Street expectations, with nearly $12 billion in ads sales during the first three months of the year. Facebook also said that despite the #DeleteFacebook campaign, it had actually grown the number of people who use the service at least once a month.

Zuckerberg, 33, made clear during a conference call with analysts that after more than a month of scandal, he's ready to move on.

"We have a responsibility to keep our community safe and secure, and we're going to invest heavily to do that," Zuckerberg said. "At the same time, we also have a responsibility to keep moving forward."

You are the product

Plenty of head-scratchers have come out of Facebook over the past few weeks since the Cambridge Analytica scandal began. The latest was a blog post last week in which the company confronted the internet adage "If you don't pay for it, you're the product." That's the idea that though Facebook lets you use its service for free, it dangles your data in front of marketers to entice them with the promise of targeted, more-effective advertising -- which is how it makes most of its money.

The notion has stung Facebook repeatedly as people (and even members of Congress) raise concerns about how advertising actually works on its service and just how much data the company makes available to developers and other partners.

Facebook tried to address this head-on in a "Hard Questions" blog post, in which Rob Goldman, the social network's vice president of advertising, raised the question, "If I'm not paying for Facebook, am I the product?"

"No," he responded. "Our product is social media -- the ability to connect with the people that matter to you, wherever they are in the world."

While it may be true some Facebook users see the company's service as the product, a tool that makes it easy for them to share photos and articles with friends and family, it's also true that user data is a kind of product. After all, that data you give Facebook is what the company relies on for its tailored ads and its sales pitch to advertisers. To some people, the trade-off is OK, but Goldman's post came off as tone deaf in the middle of a scandal in which Facebook admitted to losing control of the very data its users had entrusted it with.

Goldman also reminded users there's no way to completely opt out of sharing their data. "You can't opt out of ads altogether because ads are what keep Facebook free," Goldman wrote.

It's unclear whether Facebook can change public perceptions around its advertising practices and its stewardship of data. One thing's for sure, though: If it doesn't address these questions amid its announcements about new technology, features for its service and whiz-bang futuristic research, it'll blow an opportunity.

"Life is about learning from mistakes," Zuckerberg said earlier this month. This year's conference will be his latest chance to share what he's learned.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

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