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Facebook's internal emails get leaked — by Parliament

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Early on Wednesday, the United Kingdom Parliament released a 250-page trove of documents from a US la
 
December 5 · Issue #259 · View online
The Interface
Early on Wednesday, the United Kingdom Parliament released a 250-page trove of documents from a US lawsuit against Facebook. The trove has a colorful history, having been obtained in a hotel-room raid on a visiting businessman that may or may not have been coordinated by a crusading anti-Facebook journalist, who has stubbornly refused to comment on the matter. Facebook attempted to block the documents’ release, but British lawmaker Damien Collins argued that they are in the public interest and posted them online.
What did we learn from the document dump? I group the findings into two big buckets. The first concerns data privacy; the second is about competition. Let’s look at them in order.
Data privacy is at the root of the legal case that ushered these documents into the spotlight. Six4Three, a developer of a fairly gross app that sorted through your Facebook friends’ photos to find pictures of them in their swimsuits, sued Facebook after the company cut off access to its API in 2015. (This was the same API, by the way, that Cambridge Analytica used to illicitly obtain personal information about 87 million people.) The API had been created in response to public pressure on Facebook to share more of its data with outside developers, but enough developers behaved badly enough that shutting down the API was widely seen as a good thing.
The discovery process in the Six4Three legal lawsuit generated the 250 pages that journalists spent today reading. Taken together, the documents help capture a time when the company was considering how to manage and monetize access to the data it collects.
As had previously been reported by the Wall Street Journal, some executives did consider selling access to user data, ultimately opting against it. The documents also lay out the degree to which Facebook made special deals with some developers to preserve their access to data after it became more restricted. I can understand why Facebook made these deals — it trusted some companies more than others, often because executives had personal relationships with their counterparts at companies like Lyft. But average users had little say in how access to their data was meted out, and very few of these discussions were public as they were being had.
More than anything else, the documents illustrate the degree to which data collection is a strategy for growth as much as it is a strategy for making money. Growth has always been Facebook’s prime directive — much more important in the short and medium term than generating revenue — and data fueled it.
How else to explain the way Facebook evaluated the privacy risks inherent in collecting SMS and call records from Android users to improve the News Feed algorithm and the People You May Know feature, which suggests friends to users? Russell Brandom breaks down the relevant documents here:
Initially, the feature was intended to require users to opt in, typically through an in-app pop-up dialog box. But as developers looked for ways to get users signed up, it became clear that Android’s data permissions could be manipulated to automatically enroll users if the new feature was deployed in a certain way.
In another email chain, the group developing the feature seems to see the Android permissions screen as a point of unnecessary friction, to be avoided if possible. When testing revealed that call logs could be collected without a permissions dialog, that option seems to have been obviously preferable to developers.
“This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” an employee at the time acknowledged, “but it appears the growth team will charge ahead and do it.” Indeed it did.
The privacy-related issues are interesting to a point, but in another sense the privacy fight is mostly over. Europe enacted the General Data Protection Regulation; California passed a similar privacy bill; and most people expect that a new federal privacy law, which would supersede California’s, will be passed before it takes effect in 2020. That’s not to say there won’t be more fines; or more investigations; but it’s unlikely to amount to much more than a series of speeding tickets.
More compelling, to my mind, are the documents’ implications for a potential antitrust case around competition issues. First, there’s the email in which Mark Zuckerberg personally approves of a move to cut off the video-sharing app Vine’s ability to see which of their Facebook friends use the app. Here’s Adi Robertson:
According to documents released today by the UK Parliament, Facebook executive Justin Osofsky proposed the move on January 24th, the same day the app appeared on iOS.
“Twitter launched Vine today, which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video,” Osofsky wrote. “Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today.”
“Yup, go for it,” replied Zuckerberg, according to the documents.
The Verge reached out to Vine co-founder Dom Hofmann about the news. Hofmann said that Vine had anticipated the move, given the rocky relationship between Facebook and Twitter, which had acquired Vine before its official launch.
“I suppose if we had launched independently we might have been able to get away with it for a little bit longer, but it seems like Facebook has always been pretty quick to disable that part of their api for anything they perceive as competition,” Hofmann told my colleague Julia Alexander. “My general feeling on that policy is that it’s pretty crummy and not at all aligned with what any user would want.”
The documents also reflect how the company’s 2013 acquisition of mobile analytics company Onavo gave it a highly early-warning system for competitive threats. In BuzzFeed, Charlie Warzel and Ryan Mac lay out charts from the document cache showing how a then-independent WhatsApp was crushing Facebook Messenger in adoption rates around the world:
More importantly, though, Onavo data from April 2013 showed that WhatsApp was heavily outpacing Facebook Messenger on mobile in certain areas. Another newly released confidential chart shows that WhatsApp was sending 8.2 billion messages a day compared to Facebook Messenger’s (on mobile) 3.5 billion.
Facebook later bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, to a collective shrug from regulators.
The former says that the documents present only one side of the Pikini lawsuits. That’s true, I suppose, although my two biggest takeaways — that Facebook routinely pursued growth at the expense of data privacy, and acted in anti-competitive fashion against apps it considered a threat —hardly seem to be in dispute.
Zuckerberg’s post is aimed mostly at the discussion around Facebook’s debate about whether to sell user data. “Like any organization, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas,” he wrote. And that Facebook ultimately opted against doing so, and that so many people continues believe that it does do so, really captures what Facebook is up against in the court of public opinion.
Ultimately, these emails — like any ancient corporate emails — are best read with an eye toward dramatic irony. Consider this 2012 email from Zuckerberg pondering the risks of giving developers access to user data: “I think we leak info to developers, but I just can’t think if any instances where that data has leaked from developer to developer and caused a real issue for us,” he wrote. The real issue would come five years later, and it would make the then-fraught discussions about how best to monetize a mobile app look increasingly quaint.

Facebook morale declines
During the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I (and others) wrote that the immediate risk to Facebook was related to morale. If Facebook could no longer attract and retain the best workers, its ability to survive over the long term would be threatened.
On Monday, CNBC’s Sal Rodriguez reported on an uptick in Facebook employees asking their former colleagues about work elsewhere. The company told him that its retention rate remains “strong,” but two years of perma-crisis have taken their toll. (I quoted this in yesterday’s edition, but here it is again.)
Another former Facebook director said he has seen a rise in the number of his ex-colleagues who have reached out to ask about openings at his current company, and these employees often ask about advice on the best way to leave Facebook. He’s also experienced an increase in calls from other companies that are running references on current Facebook staffers.
“Once it becomes weird to tell people that they work at Facebook, or once their moms aren’t proud of them anymore, that’s when people are going to head to the exits,” he said. “I think we’re already getting there.”
This reporting builds on an earlier story from Deepa Seetharaman that reported on an internal survey in which the number of employees who said that Facebook is good for the world declined 19 percentage points in a year. Today, only a small majority of Facebook employees says the company is a net positive for the world.
In BuzzFeed today, Charlie Warzel and Ryan Mac add a bunch of good details to this narrative. Some executives inside Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle complain that most of the past two years’ scandals are essentially inventions of a hostile media; others are calling for new leadership; still other employees are so paranoid about the company monitoring discussions that they are only doing so on burner phones. I found this last detail somewhat incredible, so I checked it with two former employees — who not only found it believable, but shared even more incredible stories about the lengths Facebook employees are going to to avoid being listened to, some of which I hope to share with you eventually.
In the meantime, BuzzFeed reports that the future of Sheryl Sandberg is the hottest discussion going on in Blind, an anonymous chat app that makes workers log in with their workplace emails. It’s about as productive as you would imagine an anonymous workplace discussion to be:
“I love Sheryl. Because Mark loves Sheryl. This is Mark’s company, not yours. He knows Sheryl better than you do and knows what this company needs better than you do. He gives you so much you get confused in your entitled ass that this is your company,” one user wrote. “I trust Mark. And if Mark drives the company into the ground it’s his company to drive into the ground. Go work somewhere else or go start your own company if you know so much better than him.”
Not all agree. “Funny, Hitler’s followers said something similar. We all know how that went,” one user replied.
In an effort to resolve the question about whether Sandberg should go, Facebook’s board today issued a statement of support over her handling of the George Soros issue. (She tried to apologize to Soros but he won’t call her back because he’s “traveling,” according to BuzzFeed.)
Despite the board’s action, it’s clear that Facebook morale is on the decline. In 2017, which was also a difficult year for many Facebook employees, the company still ranked as the best place to work in Glassdoor’s annual anonymous survey designed to gauge employee satisfaction. This year, it dropped to No. 7:
Glassdoor bases its ranking on eight factors, including work/life balance, senior management and compensation and benefits. On employee satisfaction alone, Facebook has seen a steeper decline, steadily falling from a 4.6 rating in Q1 to a 4.3 in Q4, according to Glassdoor community expert Scott Dobroski.
“Facebook employees talked about the ‘move fast’ culture sometimes moving too fast,” Dobroski said in an interview with CNBC. He noted that this is the first time Facebook has seen a decline in its award score since 2015. Facebook employees on Glassdoor said they wanted a more robust internal structure and transparency from the company’s leadership.
Externally, the release of Six4Three lawsuit documents got most of the attention today. But internally, it’s these stories that will linger.
Democracy
Here’s How Facebook’s Local News Algorithm Change Led To The Worst Riots Paris Has Seen In 50 Years
How the Chinese Government Is Helping Google Sell Ads in China ($)
Secret Service Announces Test of Face Recognition System Around White House
Googlers Write to CEO Demanding Equal Treatment for Contractors
Amazon Has New York Afraid of Becoming Seattle on Steroids
Elsewhere
Are smartphones bad for you? The science is still out
How Tumblr went from being the most porn-friendly social media site to banning porn
I Tried to Make My Dog an Instagram Celebrity. I Failed.
Launches
Facebook Messenger Lite gets GIF support, chat color customization, and more
Takes
Milo Yiannopoulos’s collapse shows that no-platforming can work
Whistleblowers Are the Agents of Change in the Tech Industry
And finally ...
Rudy Giuliani’s bizarre “anti-Trump” Twitter conspiracy theory, explained
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and parliamentary documents: casey@theverge.com.
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