From the outside, Facebook’s recent data-leaking problems seem to result from the tension between their business—which relies on harvesting, keeping, analyzing, and selling advertisements based on user data—and their stated goal of growing meaningful communities.
To this mind-set, Facebook’s privacy policies, for example, are a set of trade-offs between making money and providing a place where people are willing to share the sensitive personal information that has made Facebook the most powerful data owner on the internet. Provide too much access to advertisers or other companies and you violate user trust. Provide too little and the advertisements become less effective, making Facebook less competitive for ad dollars.
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, I asked Zuckerberg directly: “Have you ever made a decision that benefited Facebook’s business, but hurt the community?” And his response, roughly, was that he didn’t consider that set of trade-offs to be particularly difficult.
“The things that make our product challenging to manage and operate are not the trade-offs between people and the business. I think those are quite easy,” Zuckerberg told me. “Because over the long term, the business will be better if you serve people. I think it would be nearsighted to focus on short-term revenue over what the value to people is, and I don’t think we’re that short-sighted.”
Zuckerberg has referenced his near total control over the company because of an unusual stock arrangement, which he maintains insulates the company from Wall Street’s short-term whims. So, what is hard, then?
“All the hard decisions we have to make are trade-offs between people. One of the big differences between the type of product that we’re building, which is why I refer to it as a community, [is that] different people who use Facebook have different interests,” Zuckerberg said. “Some people want to share political speech that they think is valid and other people feel like it’s hate speech.”
While that is undoubtedly a difficult trade-off among 2 billion users across thousands of cultures, it struck me as glib, to borrow a word, to write off the difficulties of building a business out of people’s personal and professional relationships. When Zuckerberg’s lieutenant Andrew Bosworth wrote a controversial post in mid-2016, he even referred to specific decisions that Facebook was making to grow that might not benefit “the community.”
“All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in,” Bosworth wrote.
Zuckerberg has disavowed the memo, which argued that all these things were worth it because Facebook’s mission was to “connect people” despite the costs. But these were specific practices that helped grow the business, which the very existence of Bosworth’s memo highlights were controversial.
That Bosworth would write a memo on Facebook openly debating growth tactics is not a problem. Of course Facebook is debating these issues. They are a company. They want to grow and make money and dominate their competitors (who are, themselves, fierce and problematic). They might as well talk about it internally, but Facebook has always denied that these trade-offs really exist, and Zuckerberg did it again on Wednesday.
Famously, in 1953, Charles Erwin Wilson, who was both the CEO of General Motors and Eisenhower’s nominee for defense secretary, was asked about conflict of interest by Senator Robert Hendrickson from New Jersey.
“If a situation did arise where you had to make a decision which was extremely adverse to the interests of your stock and General Motors Corp. or any of these other companies, or extremely adverse to the company, in the interests of the United States Government, could you make that decision?” Hendrickson asked.
“Yes, sir; I could,” Wilson responded. Then he continued: “I cannot conceive of one because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist.”
In this statement, Wilson acknowledged that he’d come to see that there was a gap between General Motors’ interests and the nation’s. There was a difference, even if General Motors’ interests generally aligned with the nation’s at that time.
Zuckerberg still seems to be in Wilson’s previous state, but some day, I expect to hear Mark Zuckerberg say almost precisely the same thing: For years, I thought what was good for our community was good for Facebook, and vice versa.
The difference does exist.