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This morning, the British parliamentary committee leading an inquiry into Facebook released a trove of documents it seized last month. The documents — evidence in a lawsuit brought against the company by a banned app developer — include internal communications from high-ranking employees at the company, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg. Many of the emails were sent between 2012 and 2015, as a post-IPO Facebook was figuring out how to monetize its services.
There is not anything particularly outrageous or damning in the emails, but collectively they point to a company whose priorities were self-preservation, revenue generation, and fear of being exposed for dubious privacy practices. It is a far cry from the benevolent, touchy-feely, global-community messaging that Facebook has pushed over the years.
Among the incidents that committee chair Damian Collins highlights, two stick out. The first concerns an update to Facebook’s Android app which would have required the company to inform users of increased access to their call logs. Upgrading the app would have required informed consent on the part of users, whereby the app would receive permission to access those logs. As Facebook employee Michael LeBeau wrote in early 2015:
[The growth team is] going to include the ‘read call log’ permission, which will trigger the Android permissions dialog on update, requiring users to accept the update. They will then provide an in-app opt in NUX for a feature that lets you continuously upload your SMS and call log history to Facebook to be used for improving things like PYMK [the People you May Know tool], coefficient calculation, feed ranking etc. This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it.
A reply from a different employee points out that the Growth team (if it wasn’t obvious, the team responsible for scaling up Facebook) was working on a method to upgrade users “without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialogue.”
To boil this down: here is Facebook trying to figure out a way to scrape more user data from phones without being upfront with its users about doing so. As LeBeau acknowledges, the call-data extraction is “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective.” In other words, users give Facebook less data when Facebook is clear about its data-harvesting practices. Facebook’s business interests are at odds with user privacy; if users control their privacy more effectively, Facebook has less data to profit from. This is not a new fact, but it is one that Facebook was well aware of and discussing internally as it figured out how to guide users into surrendering access to their phones.
The other practice highlighted by Collins is an anti-competitive move. Other emails collected by the committee show that Mark Zuckerberg himself signed off on a measure to snuff out Vine, Twitter’s then-new video-sharing app. On the app’s launch day, Justin Osofsky, a Facebook vice president, proposed shutting down Vine’s ability to access Facebook’s friends API. This made it difficult for users to find their Facebook friends within Vine, kneecapping the app’s ability to grow — and compete with Facebook.
Zuckerberg’s response: “Yup, go for it.”
The documents overall paint a picture of a company that wants to center itself as the engine of communication for the internet. Everything, apparently, needs to flow through Facebook. Developers can build apps using Facebook data, if they also feed data back into Facebook’s own system.
Perhaps the best summation of this comes in a 2012 email thread in which Zuckerberg lays out his thinking on Facebook’s API, which allows third-party developers to access user data. The tension, he explained at the time, was over whether Facebook should charge developers for API access, or offer it for free in order to obtain more users and data (which could be monetized in other ways, like with targeted ads). “There’s a clear tension between platform ubiquity and charging,” Zuckerberg explained.
Ultimately, Zuckerberg landed on the side of ubiquity, endorsing a strategy known as “full reciprocity,” meaning that apps using Facebook’s API be required to offer “a prominent option to share all of their social content within that service back to Facebook.” The point of this is that users cannot just share stuff anywhere they want; they need to be encouraged to share through Facebook.
Zuckerberg writes (emphasis added):
The answer I came to is that we’re trying to enable people to share everything they want, and to do it on Facebook. Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and to make that app social by having Facebook plug into it. However, that may be good for the world but it’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network. So ultimately, I think the purpose of platform — even the read side – is to increase sharing back to Facebook.
Sheryl Sandberg agreed, writing, “I think the observation that we are trying to maximize sharing on facebook, not just sharing in the world, is a critical one.”
Zuckerberg (and thus, Facebook’s) worldview couldn’t be laid out any more clearly. Any app that benefits people without running through Facebook is a direct threat to the company’s dominance. That’s something to think about next time Zuckerberg parrots his company’s supposed goals of building a global community and improving the world or whatever. The mandate came directly from the CEO: When it comes to deciding between altruism and Facebook, Facebook comes first.