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Facebook scandals boost privacy-focused social, search sites

An image of floating padlocks and floating Facebook logos
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Facebook's privacy scandals may be creating a stronger market for privacy-oriented sites and services, which are seeing a slow increase in use in the wake of the latest revelations.

The big picture: So far, it's a stream, not a flood. But it's a useful proxy for measuring possible defections from Facebook, since no one outside Facebook knows for sure whether significant numbers of people are abandoning the network.

Even though #deletefacebook is a trendy hashtag, Facebook says it's seen no "meaningful" drop in usage, and it's not likely to disclose updated numbers until its next quarterly report in about a month.

The catch: There's no popular, privacy-conscious alternative to Facebook waiting to welcome defectors, the way Lyft was standing by to snap up disenchanted Uber customers during the heyday of #deleteuber.

Instead, we have to look at other tools and services that Facebook-deleters might also adopt as they try to assert control over their personal data.

What they're saying:

  • Brave, a privacy-first, open-source web browser, saw an uptick in user adoption in the weeks since Facebook's Cambridge Analytica revelations. Brave recently hit the 2 million monthly average user mark.
  • DuckDuckGo, the search engine that promises users control over their data, is seeing its highest traffic ever, with more than 24 million direct search queries per day.
  • Mastodon, a federated open-source alternative to Twitter, reported about 37,000 new users in the last two weeks of March, compared to a previous rate of about 6,000 a week.
  • Privacy Badger, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's browser add-on that monitors ad tracking, says it has seen a roughly 50% increase in installations of its Chrome extension, and now has roughly 2 million users.

Between the lines: Such numbers are healthy but hardly staggering, and they barely register on the scale of Facebook's billions.

  • The outlook is similarly modest for other new privacy-enhancing products and services, like Mozilla's Facebook Container (which sequesters all Facebook-related activity from everything else you do in Mozilla's Firefox browser) or CloudFlare's new 1.1.1.1 DNS resolver (which promises not to sell or share the internet-routing queries all your online moves generate).

The odds: Privacy-oriented businesses know they face a tough climb luring Facebook's customers. Past Facebook-flight fads have either faded into obscurity (Diaspora) or drifted into narrow niches (Ello).

  • That's unlikely to change without new regulations, like a requirement that Facebook make your friend-network data portable — so you could move it to a Facebook competitor the way you move your phone number from one cell provider to another.

"We're considering this not a moment, but a new era, a new world," says Brendan Eich, Brave's CEO. Gina Bianchini, CEO of Mighty Networks, which helps entrepreneurs build individualized social networks, says there won't be a "next" Facebook but rather a multitude of more specialized successors.

"This is not going to happen overnight or in a few weeks," Bianchini says. "More like two to five years."