Oh fine, let’s talk about some ancient Facebook history.
Once upon a time there was an atrocious company called Six4Three. It made an app called Pikinis that found photos of your Facebook friends in their swimsuits and organized them all in one place. It was basically the living embodiment of contemporary fears over misuses of Facebook’s developer platform, and few mourned it when Facebook shut down the company’s API access during the big third-party developer purges of 2014 and 2015.
The memory of Pikinis might have faded away, but the company’s founder, Ted Kramer, decided to sue Facebook in 2015, alleging that its behavior had been anticompetitive. Four years later, the lawsuit endures, and it might be one of the stranger cases in the history of Silicon Valley. The app at the heart of it looks less sympathetic with each passing year — but its chief contention, that Facebook has used its stranglehold on personal information to harm competition, is now very much in vogue.
Even still, we probably wouldn’t be hearing much about the case had it not produced thousands of pages of legal discovery that speak to executives’ mindset about competition throughout the first half of the last decade. British Parliament, which is conducting its own inquiries into various matters surrounding Facebook, famously pressured Kramer to hand over the discovery documents while he was visiting England last year, and made public 250 pages last December.
Then, on Wednesday, NBC News released another 7,000 pages of documents for our perusal. Reporters Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar summarize them for us:
Taken together, they show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook users’ data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over the companies it partnered with. In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.
For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook.
All the while, Facebook planned to publicly frame these moves as a way to protect user privacy, the documents show.
On one hand, we already know the broad outlines of what these documents describe. Facebook once granted very broad permissions to developers, which helped to promote the company’s interests and spur its growth; it horse-traded with some of those developers when it suited its needs, and it ratcheted developer permissions down over time as the company achieved a dominant position and scrutiny over its data practices increased.
On the other, there’s a boldness in some of the newly revealed documents that I found striking.
There is, for example, the matter of the switcharoo. Here’s Katie Paul and Mark Hosenball in Reuters:
Some executives at the world’s biggest social network appeared to refer to the strategy of promoting a privacy-focused explanation for the change as the “Switcharoo Plan,” internal emails included in sealed California court filings show.
The Switcharoo Plan turned out to be an idea whereby Facebook executives would deprecate various APIs that its developer partners depended on for fear that those developers would one day compete with Facebook directly, while publicly announcing that the changes were intended to promote privacy. Reuters again:
As thousands of developers lost access to user data, the executives decided to announce the changes publicly. They elected to link what they referred to as the “‘bad stuff’ of PS12N” to an unrelated update of the Facebook login system which gave people greater control over their privacy.
The “narrative” for the announcement “will focus on quality and the user experience which will potentially provide a good umbrella to fold in some of the API deprecations,” one executive wrote in an email.
Another invited colleagues in a February 2014 email to review the “Switcharoo Plan,” calling it “a good compromise” that will enable them “to tell a story that makes sense.”
Oh, I’d say the story makes sense, all right. Competition: scary. How to fix it: Switcharoo Plan.
The gift of these newly leaked documents is to shed even more light on Facebook’s full-fledged dread of competition. Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most paranoid leaders in Silicon Valley history, and I almost mean that as a compliment. (I suspect he might take it as one; he’s an Andy Grove guy.)
Anyway, the documents are full of things that Zuckerberg is paranoid about.
For example, he’s paranoid about dating apps, as Rich Nieva points out here:
And he was paranoid about messaging apps, as Sam Schechner and Parmy Olson cover in the Wall Street Journal:
“Those companies are trying to build social networks and replace us,” Mr. Zuckerberg said of a trio of Chinese and Korean messaging apps that he had decided should be blocked from advertising on the social network in a January 2013 email thread that included more than a dozen senior executives including Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.
In the same thread, Javier Olivan, the company’s head of growth, said chat-app firms were dangerous because they could “morph into Facebook,” then pointed to a recent announcement from WhatsApp that it had processed 18 billion messages in a day on Dec. 31, 2012.
The same story details the concerns of one executive paranoid about the growth of WhatsApp, which Facebook would ultimately spend $19 billion to acquire.
All of this gets at the single biggest difference between how the world sees Facebook and how Facebook sees Facebook. To outsiders, it’s a monolith that steamrolls entire industries and nation-states as it pursues its business goals. To insiders, it’s a premature baby stuck forever in intensive care, never more than a few bad breaks away from oblivion. This is a document leak that reads like a hospital chart.
Even hardcore anti-Facebook partisans would understand the company better, I think, if they spent some time looking at it through that frame. So many of the qualities people resent most about Facebook — its speed of development, its shameless copying of rivals, its ruthless treatment of partners — are all born out of mortal fear. (Greed, too! But fear reigns supreme.) If you ever find yourself confused by something Facebook does, try changing your perspective — see whether it can’t be explained by paranoia.
Call it a Switcharoo Plan.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Twitter is launching a series of experiments to try to get people to quote-tweet, reply, and retweet in nondestructive ways. More shipping from Twitter! Amazing.
Trending sideways: Google is reportedly considering changing its policy on political ads. Historically, the company has accepted political ads, even when they contain misinformation.
Trending down: Google relies heavily on contractors for a variety of white-collar jobs. The two-tiered workforce is leaving more contractors feeling burnt — and willing to speak out.
⭐ The rising antitrust movement in the United States is running into powerful and well funded conservatives and libertarians committed to pushing back on those efforts. David McCabe at The New York Times explains the rationale:
Some of the conservatives resisting the push for antitrust action say many problems with large Silicon Valley companies have nothing to do with competition. They point, for example, to concerns about privacy and accuse Big Tech’s critics of applying antitrust laws to solve a problem better suited to new data regulations.
Others say efforts to change how the government polices competition are moving too fast. Daniel Crane, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, has written a draft paper arguing that the movement to change the law “has emerged out of virtually nowhere to claim a position at the bargaining table over antitrust reform and the future of the antitrust enterprise.” Thibault Schrepel, a professor at the Utrecht University School of Law, has said human flourishing “should be enhanced by applying reason to antitrust law; not fears, not feelings, not sentiments, not intuitions.”
A misleading story about a British politician’s husband went viral, thanks to a network of Facebook pages and trolls. The situation isn’t unique, but it’s getting worse as election season ramps up. (Joey D’Urso and Marianna Spring / BBC)
Mitch McConnell said Twitter’s ban on political ads undermines free speech. He said that unless the company bans opinion journalists and media outlets from advertising their work, the ban could create a double standard. And Lord knows Mitch McConnell will not tolerate a double standard! (Richard Cowan and Elizabeth Culliford / Reuters)
The person Trump’s allies accused of being the impeachment inquiry whistleblower has been a right-wing target since 2017. They’ve accused him of being “pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia” and leaking damaging information, including on Facebook. (Ryan Broderick / BuzzFeed)
Tracking cyber threats to US national security used to be a government job. Now, a team at Microsoft is taking on one of the biggest cybersecurity challenges in the world: stopping state-sponsored hackers. (Patrick Howell O’Neill / MIT Technology Review)
A top EU official said lawmakers in Europe will introduce rules requiring more disclosures in political ads. It’s the EU’s latest effort to regulate big tech on issues ranging from disinformation to competition and data privacy. (Elizabeth Schulze / CNBC)
⭐ Twitter is launching a series of experiments to try to get people to quote-tweet, reply, and retweet in nondestructive ways. The first will add an emoji to a retweet, giving people the chance to quote-tweet without going into the compose field. The second will automatically suggest people use an emoji in their replies. Alex Kantrowitz at BuzzFeed explains why these minor-seeming changes might help:
Twitter’s experiments may seem small, but they could add up to big changes by the time the company is done with them, likely sometime in 2020. “We have big ambitions here. We’re definitely serious about changing how conversations happen on Twitter,” Gasca said.
The emoji tests come amid a sitewide push to rethink aspects of the service. Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the company will ban political ads, with some exceptions. Twitter will also start allowing people to follow topics, not just people, a feature announced Wednesday that will go live later this month. Earlier this week, Twitter research VP Dantley Davis laid out a series of possible experiments the company might run, including giving people a chance to prevent retweets of their tweets and removing themselves from a conversation.
A ton of people received text messages overnight that were originally sent on Valentine’s Day, for seemingly inexplicable reasons. They never received the text messages in the first place, and the people who originally sent the messages did nothing to resend them overnight. Looking forward to the gritty movie that David Fincher will make out of this one. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)
Facebook introduced catalogs for small businesses on WhatsApp. They’re being billed as a mobile storefront to showcase products. Business will no longer have to send product photos one at a time.
Police departments are using people’s mugshots in Facebook posts to publicly shame them. Oftentimes, the posts mock people’s appearance or drug abuse issues. (Tasneem Nashrulla and Jennifer Grygiel / BuzzFeed)
Inside the rise and fall of I’m Shmacked, a digital media company that promised students Instagram fame, then silenced them with threats and lawsuits after the students gave them hundreds of dollars apiece for a chance to run their accounts. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
YouTube launched a new homepage design with bigger thumbnails — a move that frustrated people when it was tested back in August. The homepage will now have fewer featured videos, as part of the change. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Sandra Bullock and Ellen DeGeneres sued a series of websites over misleading ads. It’s an affiliate marketing scandal that involves the unauthorized use of their names and likenesses to endorse products. (Brooks Barnes and Tiffany Hsu / The New York Times)