Mark Zucker­berg is more ruth­less than he is clue­less

The Kansas City Star - - Opinion - BY SHIRA OVIDE Bloomberg Opin­ion

Law­mak­ers in the United King­dom on Wed­nes­day re­leased a trove of Face­book doc­u­ments that pro­vide an in­trigu­ing glimpse in­side the com­pany — and oblit­er­ate any re­main­ing no­tions of its leader as an in­no­cent babe in the woods.

In­ter­nal emails show Face­book wield­ing user data like a “com­mod­ity that could be har­nessed in ser­vice of busi­ness goals.” These new de­tails of com­pany de­lib­er­a­tions are now be­ing scoured to as­sess how truth­ful Face­book has been about its busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties and pri­vacy prac­tices.

The doc­u­ments are a Rorschach test of read­ers’ opin­ions on the com­pany. If you’re in­clined to be­lieve Face­book is a scourge, there’s ev­i­dence to sup­port the idea that the com­pany treats user pri­vacy like a soiled rag. The doc­u­ments also show what al­most any com­pany would do to pre­serve its self-in­ter­est.

For me, the doc­u­ments have il­lu­mi­nated the na­ture of Face­book co-founder and CEO Mark Zucker­berg as a ruth­less busi­ness­man and savvy cor­po­rate strate­gist. This shouldn’t be news to any­one who has fol­lowed Face­book’s his­tory or watched the film “The So­cial Net­work,” but the doc­u­ments add color to the less-dis­cussed as­pect of Zucker­berg’s char­ac­ter as a deeply in­volved tac­ti­cian seek­ing to max­i­mize rev­enue and as a cut­throat will­ing to (metaphor­i­cally) kneecap com­peti­tors.

Zucker­berg was in­ti­mately in­volved in 2012 as the com­pany de­bated whether and how to gen­er­ate rev­enue from mo­bile games and other fea­tures that out­side de­vel­op­ers were stitch­ing into Face­book. In a dis­cus­sion with ex­ec­u­tives over email in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber 2012, he took the po­si­tion that Face­book should per­mit com­pa­nies fairly broad and no-cost ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about the plat­form’s users. He ar­gued that the de­ci­sion would give de­vel­op­ers the in­cen­tive to build fun things for users, and in turn com­pel peo­ple to share more in­for­ma­tion back to Face­book through the de­vel­oper’s app.

“If we do this well, we should be able to un­lock much more shar­ing in the world and on Face­book through a con­stel­la­tion of apps than we could ever build ex­pe­ri­ences for our­selves,” Zucker­berg wrote.

This was an as­tute and nu­anced tac­ti­cal ar­gu­ment — not a man who pre­ferred to leave the messy de­tails to lieu­tenants. And Zucker­berg was right. The ap­proach with app de­vel­op­ers helped build a young, still-un­steady Face­book into an es­sen­tial piece of the in­ter­net. The de­ci­sion to grant fairly wide lat­i­tude for de­vel­op­ers to tap in­for­ma­tion about Face­book users also led to the scan­dal that erupted this year about Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. It was both a smart de­ci­sion and a seed of one of Face­book’s en­demic prob­lems. But ei­ther way, it was a clear-eyed Zucker­berg who called the shots.

There’s also the eye­catch­ing ex­am­ple of Zucker­berg the savvy busi­ness­man from 2013, when the CEO ap­proved a re­quest to block Twit­ter from pulling peo­ple’s Face­book friends into its new video app Vine. The de­ci­sion was a se­ri­ous speed bump for Vine and Twit­ter, which at the time was seen as a sig­nif­i­cant threat to Face­book.

Face­book’s Vine block was pre­vi­ously re­ported. And there have been many other re­ported episodes of Face­book’s will­ing­ness to copy po­ten­tially threat­en­ing tech­nolo­gies or im­pede ri­vals by us­ing the so­cial net­work’s prodi­gious power. But see­ing strate­gies like these dis­cussed in in­ter­nal emails is much more pow­er­ful and sheds light on Zucker­berg’s role in Face­book’s ruth­less­ness. One doc­u­ment said he per­son­ally ap­proved a short list of ri­val com­pa­nies sub­ject to tighter re­stric­tions on Face­book ac­tiv­ity.

These in­sights might make some trust Zucker­berg less, and that’s a fair per­spec­tive. To me, the doc­u­ments sim­ply make him less of a two-di­men­sional car­toon char­ac­ter. Let this for­ever kill the sim­plis­tic im­pres­sion of Zucker­berg as a tech­ni­cal wiz­ard who — as he’s re­peated many times — cre­ated Face­book in his col­lege dorm room and per­haps didn’t un­der­stand how big the net­work would be­come, nor fo­cus on what in­for­ma­tion it col­lected or how the com­pany would profit from it.

No one is purely Bar­ney Fife or solely a crime god­fa­ther. And we just got a valu­able look at the full com­plex­ion of Zucker­berg as an ex­ec­u­tive.

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