Hey, Mark Zuckerberg, is Facebook Portal the wrong product at the wrong time?

Commentary: After nonstop privacy and security screwups, the social network wants us to trust it even more with a camera that watches you at home. I have questions.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read

That camera.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg, are you betting we all have a short memory?

Do you and your team at Facebook really think people will look past all the controversies that have happened this year -- TL;DR: 87 million Facebook users' personal data co-opted by Cambridge Analytica -- and buy a $200 internet-connected video camera and microphone from you, of all people, and bring it into their homes?

Did you think we all missed that this new Portal device isn't just some magical video chat gadget, but also a way to gather even more information about us so you can send yet even more targeted advertising our way?

Doesn't Facebook still make about 98 percent of its $40.6 billion in annual sales by mining our personal information -- what we're reading, sharing, liking -- so you can send us targeted ads?

Do you think the cutesy ads now blanketing the airwaves for your Portal video chat device, which goes on sale this week, can convince people to buy it? The tagline "If you can't be there, feel there" may stir emotion in a way that would impress Mad Men's Don Draper, but is marketing spin enough?

Sure, CNET reviewer Megan Wollerton said the view through Portal's wide-angle cameras "creates a feeling like you're there with the people on the other side of the screen" -- but do you think people will be so in awe of how the device works that they're going to overlook the fact that it's being sold by Facebook?  

Do you think we'll just ignore the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which your company tried to cover up for three years, coming clean only after The New York Times and The Guardian's Observer newspaper broke the story? Didn't you threaten to sue The Observer for letting the world know what you were up to?

Are you betting we've already forgotten about election interference concerns and the ongoing disinformation campaigns still happening on Facebook and that you've said repeatedly will take time to figure out how to stop? Isn't your whole business model supposed to be built on creating a trusted relationship with your more than 2 billion users?

Did you think people don't care about all those years you allowed extremists like Alex Jones and his Infowars channel to use your invention to harass the families of dead children? Are we supposed to forget that you defended Holocaust deniers in July? Or that a month later, your teams took down a post about Holocaust education from the Anne Frank Center? (And that you restored it only weeks after the fact, when the organization made a stink about it on Twitter?)

What about President Donald Trump, who keeps accusing your service of censoring conservative voices?

Maybe you think we forgot that the information of 29 million Facebook users may have been hacked in September? Or that just last week we learned 120 million more accounts may have been hacked, too?

Why can't you fix all this stuff before trying to sell us a device that, at best, already faces an uphill battle in trying to convince people that putting yet another internet-connected doorway into their homes is a good idea?

(Gut check: Am I the only one who thinks Facebook's Portal is the wrong product at the wrong time? Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said Portal is "downright creepy" and wanted to ask, "How much pain are you willing to go through to see it succeed?")


Mark Zuckerberg is releasing Facebook's Portal video chat device after a tumultuous year.

Getty Images

Is it that you don't understand how much goodwill Facebook has lost?

Facebook declined to make you available to answer these questions but, in an interview, your VP Andrew "Boz" Bosworth told me that you should ship a device when it's ready -- but should you really?

Didn't you see the poll from Reuters just a week after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, in which people overwhelmingly said they don't trust that you protect their information the way you should?

Did you miss the Gallup/Knight Poll that found a whopping 69 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds say Facebook should be regulated like a traditional news media company? Are you banking on how that same poll found most people don't trust government to regulate you very well?

How about the Pew survey showing that six in 10 Americans said they want to do more to protect their privacy? Did that not show up in your newsfeed? How does an internet-connected camera and microphone help increase user privacy ?

Mark, is there any way out of the mess on Facebook? Are we all just doomed to be swept up in wave after wave of online toxicity? Will Facebook ever be able to solve this problem?

Were we all -- including you -- naive about the danger that bad behavior on Facebook poses to our individual safety, our elections and our democratic institutions?

Do you have answers to any of these questions? Are you willing to live up to that talk about Facebook being more transparent and address these and other questions in a post that you can share with the world and not just talk about in a few media interviews?

Or are you just betting we all have a short memory?

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