'Good for the world'? Face­book emails re­veal what re­ally drives the site

The Guardian Australia - - Technology - Ju­lia Car­rie Wong

The cen­tral mythos of Face­book is that what’s good for Face­book is good for the world. More shar­ing, more friends and more con­nec­tion will “make the world more open and con­nected” and “bring the world closer to­gether”, Mark Zucker­berg has ar­gued, even as his com­pany has been en­gulfed by scan­dal.

But con­fi­den­tial emails, re­leased Wed­nes­day by the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment, re­veal the hard­headed busi­ness cal­cu­la­tions that lurked be­neath the feel­good image pro­jected by Zucker­berg and Face­book.

“That may be good for the world, but it’s not good for us,” Zucker­berg wrote in a 2012 email about the pos­si­bil­ity that de­vel­op­ers would build ap­pli­ca­tions that used data about Face­book users and their friends, but not pro­vide any data back to Face­book.

Zucker­berg’s as­sess­ment – that “shar­ing” was only valu­able if peo­ple were shar­ing data with his com­pany – was en­dorsed by Face­book’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Sh­eryl Sand­berg, who re­sponded, “I think the ob­ser­va­tion that we are try­ing to max­i­mize shar­ing on face­book [sic], not just shar­ing in the world, is a crit­i­cal one.”

The emails pro­vide an un­com­mon win­dow into the think­ing of Zucker­berg and other Face­book ex­ec­u­tives as they sought rev­enue streams amid an in­dus­try-shak­ing shift from desk­top to mo­bile com­put­ing. Ex­ec­u­tives con­sid­ered charg­ing de­vel­op­ers fees to gain ac­cess to user data – some­thing Face­book now claims it would never do – and dis­cussed other schemes to lever­age the com­pany’s scale and vast troves of user data into rev­enue. At one point, Zucker­berg mused about how Face­book could mimic fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions as an “in­for­ma­tional bank” whose as­sets were user’s per­sonal in­for­ma­tion rather than money.

Face­book has strongly ob­jected to the re­lease of the doc­u­ments, which it pro­vided to the at­tor­neys of a for­mer app de­vel­oper, Six4Three, dur­ing the course of a law­suit. The doc­u­ments were ob­tained and pub­lished by the House of Com­mons dig­i­tal, cul­ture, me­dia and sport (DCMS) com­mit­tee, de­spite a court or­der by a US judge, who had sealed them.

The com­pany de­cried the pub­li­ca­tion of the “cher­ryp­icked” doc­u­ments in a blog­post pub­lished Wed­nes­day, stat­ing: “The set of doc­u­ments, by de­sign, tells only one side of the story and omits im­por­tant con­text … The doc­u­ments were se­lec­tively leaked to pub­lish some, but not all, of the in­ter­nal dis­cus­sions at Face­book at the time of our plat­form changes. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold peo­ple’s data.”

Six4Three’s griev­ance stems from changes Face­book made in 2014 and 2015 to re­strict de­vel­oper ac­cess to user data. Face­book had pre­vi­ously al­lowed third-party app de­vel­op­ers broad ac­cess to user data, rang­ing from their birth­days and pro­file pic­tures to the names of their friends and the con­tents of their pri­vate mes­sages.

In a Face­book post pub­lished Wed­nes­day in re­sponse to the doc­u­ments’ re­lease, Zucker­berg wrote that “pre­vent­ing abu­sive apps” on the plat­form “was the main pur­pose of this ma­jor plat­form change”. “This was the change re­quired to pre­vent the sit­u­a­tion with Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica,” he wrote. “If we had only done it a year sooner we could have pre­vented that sit­u­a­tion com­pletely.”

But the emails re­veal that some in­ter­nal dis­cus­sions fo­cused on ex­ploit­ing de­vel­op­ers’ hunger for the user data to ben­e­fit Face­book’s bot­tom line, and that Zucker­berg him­self was dis­mis­sive of the idea that de­vel­op­ers could or would mis­use user data.

“I’m gen­er­ally skep­ti­cal that there is as much data leak strate­gic risk as you think,” he wrote in an email in Oc­to­ber 2012. “I think we leak info to de­vel­op­ers, but I just can’t think of any in­stances where that data has leaked from de­vel­oper to de­vel­oper and caused a real is­sue for us.”

In an­other email, he ap­peared to be aware that some de­vel­op­ers were mis­us­ing their ac­cess to data, but ap­peared fo­cused on how this harmed the com­pany, not the users whose data was be­ing ac­cessed: “Not charg­ing still means peo­ple will overuse and abuse our APIs and waste money for us, so I still think we should im­ple­ment some kind of pro­gram where you have to pay if you use too many of our re­sources,” he wrote. “This should be rel­a­tively sim­ple, achieve the goal of con­trol­ling costs and make us some money if we want.”

That dis­cus­sion of abuse comes from a lengthy email Zucker­berg sent to top ex­ec­u­tives at 2.54am on 19 Novem­ber 2012, lay­ing out his thoughts on the “plat­form busi­ness model”.

“It’s im­por­tant to first fully ex­plore what we’re try­ing to get out of the plat­form,” he wrote. “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 plat-

form – even the read side – is to in­crease shar­ing back into Face­book.”

Ul­ti­mately, Zucker­berg wrote, he hoped to find “the right bal­ance be­tween ubiq­uity, rec­i­proc­ity and profit”.

In an­other email, which was for­warded to a hand­ful of ex­ec­u­tives on 7 Oc­to­ber 2012, Zucker­berg ex­plained his in­spi­ra­tion for an­other idea – re­quir­ing de­vel­op­ers to pay Face­book a fee, “per­haps on the or­der of ~$0.10 / user each year” to ac­cess data about users.

“I’ve been read­ing a lot of books on fi­nance and bank­ing re­cently, and even though the idea of an in­for­ma­tion bank is not iden­ti­cal to fi­nan­cial bank, the com­par­i­son sug­gests some in­ter­est­ing things,” he wrote. “For ex­am­ple, banks charge you in­ter­est for as long as you have their money out. Rather than let­ting devs pay a one time fee to fetch data, we could ef­fec­tively do this by man­dat­ing that devs must keep data fresh and up­date their data each month.”

He con­tin­ued: “An­other idea is charg­ing dif­fer­ent de­vel­op­ers dif­fer­ent rates for things. The whole bank­ing in­dus­try is based on charg­ing peo­ple dif­fer­ent rates.”

While it would hardly be note­wor­thy for a nor­mal CEO to jus­tify ef­forts to turn a profit, Face­book and Zucker­berg have long claimed to be driven by a sense of mis­sion rather than a thirst for profit. In his post Wed­nes­day, Zucker­berg couched this profit mo­tive as a strug­gle for sur­vival, writ­ing, “Run­ning a devel­op­ment plat­form is ex­pen­sive and we need to sup­port it.”

In an email sent 26 Oc­to­ber 2012, how­ever, for­mer Face­book ex­ec­u­tive and Zucker­berg con­fi­dante Sam Lessin pro­vided his then-boss with an­other way to rec­on­cile the com­pany’s val­ues with its baser needs.

“Our mis­sion is to make the world more open and con­nected,” Lessin wrote. “And the only way we can do that is with the best peo­ple and the best in­fra­struc­ture – which re­quires that we make a lot of money/be very prof­itable.”

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Pho­to­graph:

Emails pro­vide a win­dow into the think­ing of Zucker­berg and other ex­ec­u­tives as they soughtrev­enue streams amid an in­dus­try-shak­ing shift from desk­top to mo­bile com­put­ing.

Pho­to­graph: Fabrice Cof­frini/AFP/Getty Im­ages

Sh­eryl Sand­berg en­dorsed Zucker­berg’sas­sess­ment that “shar­ing” was only valu­able if peo­ple were shar­ing data with Face­book.

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