UK lawmakers released a collection of Facebook Inc. documents on Wednesday that provide an intriguing look at the company and erase any remaining idea of its chief executive officer as innocent in the woods.
As Nate Lanxon and Sarah Frier wrote, internal e-mails show Facebook that wields user data as a "commodity that could be exploited to serve corporate goals". Press organizations previously divulged some of these details, in part from versions of some of these same documents. But this more complete set of business deliberations is now analyzed to assess how truthful Facebook has been about its business and privacy practices.
The documents are a Rorschach test of the opinions of readers on the company. If you are inclined to believe that Facebook is a scourge, there is evidence to support the idea that the company treats user privacy as a dirty rag and abuses its power. (1) The documents also show what any company would do to preserve itself-interest.
For me, the documents have illuminated the nature of Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, as a ruthless business man and expert business strategist. This should not be new to anyone who has followed the history of Facebook or seen the "Social Network", but the documents add color to the less discussed aspect of Zuckerberg's character as a deeply involved tactic trying to maximize Facebook's revenue and as a debt collector willing to (metaphorically) the competitors of the knee.
This is not Mark Zuckerberg like a naif who suffers from Mayberry sweating the sweatshirt when she is nervous and cheerfully welcomes a cow. This is Mark Zuckerberg in the role of Vito Corleone.
Zuckerberg was intimately involved in 2012 as the company discussed whether and how to generate revenue from mobile games and other features that external developers were sewing on Facebook. In a discussion with executives via e-mail in October and November 2012, he took the position that Facebook should allow companies a fairly broad and free access to information about Facebook users. He argued that the decision would give developers an incentive to build fun things for Facebook users and, in turn, force people to share more information on Facebook through the developer's app.
"If we do well, we should be able to unlock many more shares in the world and on Facebook through a constellation of apps than we could ever create experiences for ourselves," wrote Zuckerberg. (2)
It was an astute and nuanced tactical argument – not a man who preferred to leave the lieutenants with the disordered details of Facebook. And Zuckerberg was right. The approach with app developers has helped to create a young and unstable Facebook in an essential element of the Internet. The decision to give developers a fairly broad range of information about Facebook users has led to the outbreak this year on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. It was an intelligent decision and a seed of one of Facebook's endemic problems. But anyway, it was Zuckerberg with clear eyes to call the shots.
Lanxon and Frier also write about the exciting example of Zuckerberg, the expert business man of 2013, when the CEO replied, "Yes, do it for this", to a request for block the Vine of Twitter Inc. by pulling Facebook friends from the new app for short video clips on the web. The decision was a serious coup for Vine and Twitter, which at the time was considered a significant threat to Facebook. (Vine's co-founder thought about this.)
Once again, Facebook's Vine block has been reported previously. And there have been many other reported episodes of Facebook's willingness to copy potentially threatening technologies or hinder rivals using the prodigious power of the social network. But seeing strategies like these discussed in internal emails is much more powerful and sheds light on the role of Zuckerberg in the ruthlessness of Facebook. One document said that he personally approved a short list of competing companies subject to stricter restrictions on Facebook activity.
For some people, these insights might make them trust less than Zuckerberg, and this is a fair prospect. For me, the documents simply make Zuckerberg less a two-dimensional cartoon character. Let this forever kill the simplistic impression of Zuckerberg as a technical magician who – as he repeated many times – created Facebook in his college dorm room, and perhaps did not realize how big Facebook would become or focus on what information has been collected or how the company would profit from it.
People are complex No one is purely Barney Fife, or just the Godfather. And we just gave a precious look at Zuckerberg's complete complexion as a manager.
A version of this column was originally published in Bloomberg's Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can register here.
(1) It is worth remembering, as Facebook did, that this was a selective revelation of a much wider range of internal Facebook documents and e-mails that are part of a lawsuit against society.
(2) I was surprised that this debate on Facebook six years ago did not affect the impact of the company's decision on the privacy of user data. It is possible that Facebook included privacy in discussions about how to manage developer apps, but this was not reflected in this selection of documents.
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Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion artist who covers technology. He was previously a journalist with the Wall Street Journal.
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