Facebook's Pentagon Papers Moment
November 7, 2019 7:11 AM   Subscribe

A legal case between FACEB...err, Facebook and app developer Six4Three had resulted in a massive corpus of documents released in discovery and sealed by the judge in the matter - which would then receive more time in the spotlight when British MP Damien Collins used his legal authority to seize control of the documents. Wednesday, investigative reporter Duncan Campbell released his copy of the full leaked corpus of documents.

The documents reveal much about Facebook's use of user data, with some particular points of note:

*Facebook wielded its control over user data to hobble rivals like YouTube, Twitter, and Amazon. The company benefited its friends even as it took aggressive action to block rival companies’ access – while framing its actions as necessary to protect user privacy.

*Facebook executives quietly planned a data-policy “switcharoo.” “Facebook began cutting off access to user data for app developers from 2012 to squash potential rivals while presenting the move to the general public as a boon for user privacy,” Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing the leaked documents.

*Facebook considered charging companies to access user data. Documents made public in late 2018 revealed that from 2012 to 2014, Facebook was contemplating forcing companies to pay to access users’ data. (It didn’t ultimately follow through with the plan.)

*Facebook whitelisted certain companies to allow them more extensive access to user data, even after it locked down its developer platform throughout 2014 and 2015.TechCrunch reported in December that it “is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.”

*Facebook planned to spy on the locations of Android users. Citing the documents, Computer Weekly reported in February that “Facebook planned to use its Android app to track the location of its customers and to allow advertisers to send political advertising and invites to dating sites to ‘single’ people.”
posted by NoxAeternum (43 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Related NBC News article: Leaked documents show Facebook leveraged user data to fight rivals and help friends

The documents released come to almost 7000 pages, and over 650 MB.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:18 AM on November 7


I mean, breakup these monopolies if you want elected governments to be able to decide anything
posted by eustatic at 7:20 AM on November 7 [18 favorites]


I think imprisoning some of these criminals will also help. I mean. We owe it to ourselves to see, really.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:35 AM on November 7 [23 favorites]


I mean, breakup these monopolies if you want elected governments to be able to decide anything

I think imprisoning some of these criminals will also help. I mean. We owe it to ourselves to see, really.


We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas, man.
posted by phunniemee at 7:40 AM on November 7 [35 favorites]


How Mark Zuckerberg Became the Most Reviled Man in Tech (Vanity Fair).
“He’s fucking destroyed this town,” the V.C. said ...“Any time there’s an inkling of innovation here, any time a new idea comes up, Zuckerberg either buys it and shuts it down, or copies it and shuts it down anyway.” The venture capitalist, who has known Zuckerberg for more than a decade, said the problem with Facebook goes far beyond fake news. It’s as if the company has sucked the air out of Silicon Valley itself.
So, yeah, throw it on the pile over there.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:49 AM on November 7 [17 favorites]


I think there's a typo in the post. Damien Collins is an MP, not the PM.
posted by Lorc at 7:58 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]


As a young technologist in the 1980s I thrilled to visions of "everybody with a computer, and all the computers hooked up with one another so people could talk without intermediation." I visualized a new age of freedom and equality resulting from this.

I now realize that most people don't have a huge lot to say that's not kind of dumb, and totally didn't get how easily so many of them are taken in by lies. Those intermediaries weren't so completely worthless after all.

Also, in retrospect, "rough consensus and running code" is not a good test of whether something is ready to become critical national infrastructure.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 8:00 AM on November 7 [27 favorites]


[Fixed that MP/PM switcheroo in the post, thanks for the flag note on it.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:08 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]


Maybe he was also the Project Manager, who knows...
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:09 AM on November 7


As a young technologist in the 1980s I thrilled to visions of "everybody with a computer, and all the computers hooked up with one another so people could talk without intermediation." I visualized a new age of freedom and equality resulting from this.

I think all of us who were in that space in the early days remember how thrilling that feeling of connection and freedom was -- I'm maybe a little older than you but I felt the same way about the promise of democratization from Usenet and email and the BBS scene and the very early Web. And before that, I remember thinking that the expansion of ARPANET to include more systems was going to make the world safe for weirdos like me.

What's inexcusable is not that early naivete. What's inexcusable, in the case of FB and others, is that once it was very obvious there were serious challenges arising from disintermediation that they perhaps had not foreseen -- fundamental issues of privacy and harassment and power imbalance and insularity and targeted false speech and many others -- they made the conscious decision to ignore, and sometimes even foster those challenges in pursuit of ever greater wealth and power. And then they tried (and are still trying) to justify those decisions by cynical reference to the optimism and idealism that led so many of us to give them a free pass in the first place.

It was and is bullshit, and for a lot of disillusioned nerds (like me) Zuck is the grinning, cynical face of it.
posted by The Bellman at 8:38 AM on November 7 [44 favorites]


Those intermediaries weren't so completely worthless after all.

In my view, Facebook allows anyone to be an intermediary and some of those intermediaries act in really, really bad faith.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:46 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


breakup these monopolies

I'm not saying I disagree, but how would you break Facebook up? You could split the major acquisitions like Instagram off again, but the core of the problem is that Facebook has two major functions. Social networking that entices people into giving up information about themselves and an information broker that sells that information. Neither side can stand independently.
posted by Candleman at 8:49 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]


Social networking that entices people into giving up information about themselves and an information broker that sells that information. Neither side can stand independently.

Break them up. It's not the government's job to ensure the business model of Facebook, and letting those two sides coexist is doing real harm.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:07 AM on November 7 [17 favorites]


On one hand, there are a lot of questions about breaking up Amazon and how use the online and logistical resources they’ve created to better, more democratic use but Facebook could vanish tomorrow and nothing would be worse (maybe get the government to start up a whitepages dot gov system since that’s what most people who use Facebook use it for).
posted by The Whelk at 9:09 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]


I think Facebook should be regulated under utilities laws, not under antitrust laws. Hear me out:

Facebook, at least its social media function, has become THE critical social function in the digital space of American life. As someone who lives without it ... I'm pretty lonely. I miss out on so much because I refuse to give Zuckerface more data about me than he can get through periphery data-vacuuming. Given that it's critical for the social infrastructure of the internet, I believe the following should be done:

Facebook is forced by the government to sell its core products - Facebook and Instagram - to the federal government. Those products are rolled into one large, American-focused social network, and the advertising element is taken out of the equation. Paying taxes grants you access to the social network, and your identity is linked to it - meaning, yes, it requires a SSN and drivers license to register, with the option to specify you are trans and that although your drivers license is YOU, you have changed names. This grants the GOVERNMENT the ability to regulate speech on the platforms according to anti hate speech laws, and for the government to create thousands of new jobs - as moderators on the platform.

Thoughts?
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 9:11 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


Sounds like a good way to exclude a lot of people who live in the US and seems to completely ignore people in the rest of the world who use it?
posted by wierdo at 9:16 AM on November 7 [8 favorites]


It's not the government's job to ensure the business model of Facebook, and letting those two sides coexist is doing real harm.

So Facebook goes under and is replaced by the next social network .... That also sells the user data.

That's the business model of social networks because users have proven time and time again that they won't pay to use them but want them.

And getting too comfortable with the idea of saying that a company is inconveniently powerful and destroying it is not a good thing. The next fascist will probably be a lot smarter and more cunning than Trump.
posted by Candleman at 9:18 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Thoughts?

Horrifying.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:19 AM on November 7 [10 favorites]


I think imprisoning some of these criminals will also help. I mean. We owe it to ourselves to see, really.

Like most people with money, they are quite careful not to break the laws they have lobbied for and therefore they are not criminals and cannot be locked up.

I think Facebook should be regulated under utilities laws, not under antitrust laws. Hear me out:

It's obvious that social networks resemble natural monopolies and therefore should be regulated in a similar way. Antitrust regulation would make social networks less useful to their customers if it led to fragmentation. Forcing networks to allow portability, the way we require banking portability, phone number portability, and electricity supplier portability (in places where network and generation is unbundled) and rigorously regulating their use of data would let us keep the network effect while constraining what they can do with our data.
posted by atrazine at 9:26 AM on November 7 [13 favorites]


You could split the major acquisitions like Instagram off again, but the core of the problem is that Facebook has two major functions. Social networking that entices people into giving up information about themselves and an information broker that sells that information. Neither side can stand independently.

A social networking site could be funded by running advertisements based only on information voluntarily and explicitly shared with the social networking site; with no off-platform tracking permitted. That would be less profitable than the million-tentacle octopus that exists, but a lot of the money that Facebook needs is because they are trying to get a stranglehold on everything.

A social network that enables bands to post gig updates and grandmas to see grandbaby photos is a perfectly legitimate service that could be self-sustaining under moderate ad revenue; it's the attempt to route all human communication and knowledge through the network that causes the same problem -- in the same way that a part of your body growing new tissue to repair itself is fine, until it happens so fast it becomes a cancer.


Facebook is forced by the government to sell its core products - Facebook and Instagram - to the federal government... Thoughts?

Bit of a typo there with "SSN" and "American". When you say "Federal government", you must mean the Indian government, as the country with the most Facebook users, right?
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:29 AM on November 7 [13 favorites]


Thoughts?

Sounds like a great way to let Nazis overwhelm the system in the US, as I don't think removing the speech would be permissible.

Also, anonymity allows people to come to terms with and explore their identity in safer ways.
posted by No One Ever Does at 9:30 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Like most people with money, they are quite careful not to break the laws they have lobbied for and therefore they are not criminals and cannot be locked up.

I'm having a hard time keeping the laughter under control here. It isn't compliance with the law that keeps the wealthy from being subject to punishment, it's the unwillingness of prosecutors to prosecute even clear cut violations absent some special circumstance that forces their hand.
posted by wierdo at 9:32 AM on November 7 [10 favorites]


Facebook could vanish tomorrow and nothing would be worse

A polite and general reminder: social platforms like Facebook are critical to some families and communities, and because of Facebook's global predominance, multi-national or dispersed groups rely on it as a default standard platform. Deleting Facebook isn't an option where it's the best way to stay connected with these groups.

Personally, I think regulating (and fining) Facebook is a viable option. Just make sure Facebook can't move data centers to more permissive locations and say "sorry, these countries don't require us to share data."
posted by filthy light thief at 10:08 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]


This grants the GOVERNMENT the ability to regulate speech

If this were currently US law, the regulation would currently be enforced by Donald Trump and his appointees.
posted by straight at 10:36 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]


What about using a modified form of the Fairness Doctrine for regulating social media content specific to political advertisements? I have to agree that Facebook vanishing would have zero negative impact, but can still see the utility that some people gain from using the site.

Given the revenue streams from political ads and subsequent click-throughs, Facebook will never change though.
posted by dented_halo at 11:41 AM on November 7


I just did a google search out of frustration using the search term "kill facebook with fire".

I got back page after page of Facebook groups and users whose name is "kill it with fire".

Sorry, but I think we're doomed.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:28 PM on November 7


*Facebook planned to spy on the locations of Android users. Citing the documents, Computer Weekly reported in February that “Facebook planned to use its Android app to track the location of its customers and to allow advertisers to send political advertising and invites to dating sites to ‘single’ people.”

I could have told you that. I remember when they were heavily pushing their "Find Wifi" feature which immediately struck me as a brazen attempt to get users to allow Facebook unfettered access to phone location data.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:03 PM on November 7


This grants the GOVERNMENT the ability to regulate speech on the platforms according to anti hate speech laws, and for the government to create thousands of new jobs - as moderators on the platform.

Moderators suddenly limited by the first amendment.
posted by jaduncan at 1:08 PM on November 7


Alright, owning that my idea was shot full of holes. I feel that responding to all the criticisms would derail the discussion away from the disclosures about Facebook, and that in the end, my idea is less viable than I thought.

I definitely am with the other members who have piped up saying that Facebook's business model wouldn't collapse, but would be extremely moderated, if we had control over what data they could sell. I also think that I heard there's a unicorn outside my house ...

nope. no unicorn. I think we're in it for the long fight.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 1:29 PM on November 7


Oh, crikey - something on the blue with my fingerprints on. So as to justify that claim, story time!

In December 2018, Damian Collins made a public release of about 250 pages of the material they had seized, on the UK Parliament website. But it wasn't OCRd, making it a total pain for journos to work on it. Duncan Campbell wasn't working on the subject at the time, and therefore neither was I. But I noted the lack of OCR could be an annoying speed-bump for people who might be wishing to work on the material - so I ran it through OCR and stuck it up on Github. Duncan (disclosure: my husband) tweeted out a link to it. (Turns out I also posted a link on the relevant mefi thread, at the time.)

On 18 February (the same day as the DCMS committee released their report), leaked material is anonymously sent to Duncan. Some asking-around is done and we are very surprised to discover that, as far as we can tell, he is the only recipient. Code Brown in the Trouser Department - we have unexpectedly found ourselves in sole possession of what appears to be the mother-lode.

It turns out, the received material required extensive OCRing in order to get it ready to actually work on. Which of course falls to me, as Duncan's live-in techie. That 630mb file with all the Sealed stuff in? Neither the (relatively old) commercial or open-source OCR tools I was trying could swallow it all in one go, so it had to be sliced up in to chunks for OCR and then reassembled (the free version of pdftk was absolutely invaluable for the slice-and-merge work). While I was doing that, Duncan contacted some journalists and media outlets and put a team together to actually enable journalism to be done.

In subsequent Facebook court filings trying to unearth who the leaker was, they sought any references to both Duncan and myself (as well as many other people and entities).

Our best guess (and genuinely a guess, supported only by what I've described above) is that the leaker saw my public-service OCRing of the initial published-by-DCMS material and my connection to Duncan (or saw Duncan's tweeting about my OCR-work, same difference) and decided we would be the most-suitable recipient for the mother-lode leak both in terms of ability to deal with the technical issues and also to get a decent amount of journalism out of it.

tl;dr I did a bit of public-service OCR, was in the right place at the right time, and ended up accidentally a whole lot of Facebook sealed court documents.
posted by BuxtonTheRed at 2:17 PM on November 7 [73 favorites]


Well, thanks for doing that, Buxton, and to your husband, too.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 2:32 PM on November 7 [10 favorites]


I'm having a hard time keeping the laughter under control here. It isn't compliance with the law that keeps the wealthy from being subject to punishment, it's the unwillingness of prosecutors to prosecute even clear cut violations absent some special circumstance that forces their hand.

Laugh away but the abuse of prosecutorial discretion to let powerful people off is a trifle compared to the fact that the laws were originally drafted to make the things they want to do legal.

All the things that Facebook has done which are leading to calls for regulation and break-up are legal or have tiny penalties attached to them in US law.
posted by atrazine at 2:39 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


Buxton, I should like to buy you a beer for your efforts.
posted by Molesome at 4:39 AM on November 8 [3 favorites]


Besides big-bang approaches like breaking up FB, there are also regulatory/lawmaking opportunities to work around the edges and reduce their monopolistic lock on users.

One possibility: requirement for social media sites to enable robust interoperability with other sites. E.g. Facebook should appear within the Mastodon network as just another Mastodon node. Similarly, a Facebook user should be able to friend Mastodon users and follow their feeds/like their posts.

Another possibility: require that users be able to download all of their data in a standard format that can be automatically imported into another site. This is not the same as the idea of downloading your data to see what FB is storing about you, which they can choose to provide in formats that would be difficult to import. The goal is to reduce the user's reluctance to change platforms because they spent so much time building their profile.

These types of requirements would make it easier for competitors to get a toehold, improve things for users, and hopefully prevent another monopoly from using the same tactics FB did in order to fill the vacuum if FB is broken up.
posted by duoshao at 5:32 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


Those don't actually solve network effects, though. Even if you force Facebook to interoperate with other systems, they'll still create features unique to their service to entice users. And the idea of "downloading one's data" as a means of breaking network effects fundamentally misunderstands the whole issue.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:06 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


And other services can create unique features to entice users away from FB as well. The reason why doing something like that in today's world is useless is because users lose contact with their network of friends if they leave Facebook. If someone could still see and like their high school friend's baby pix in their feed regardless of which platform they and their friend uses they would be more willing to try a competitive service.

It's not necessary to come up with a single solution that solves network effects completely. Chipping away at vendor lock-in opens up new possibilities and gives competitors a fighting chance.
posted by duoshao at 7:15 AM on November 8


The "vendor lock-in" comes from the social aspect, not the technological - people stick with Facebook because that's where their communities are, and interoperability does nothing to change that. This argument is just another form of the open source argument that "the answer to bad governance is forking", which has been a spectacular failure.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:25 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


The goal is absolutely to address the social aspect. If your community can transparently span across multiple services rather than being locked within FB, users can choose to leave FB without abandoning their community.

The idea of forking requires people to choose between the old system and the forked system and try to convince their friends to come along. The goal of these requirements would be to break that down - if duoshao@mastodon can friend noxaeturnum@fb and see/like/comment on your feed in a way that you can see my responses in FB then why do I need to stay on FB? How is that not addressing the problem you mention with communities?
posted by duoshao at 7:46 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]


For awhile at Google, the big joke was:

"What does Facebook have that Google Plus doesn't?"
"My friends."
posted by jonnay at 7:51 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]


@jonnay
Exactly my point. If a Google Plus user could have friended a Facebook user "across" the two services, wouldn't that have made Google Plus more viable?
posted by duoshao at 7:59 AM on November 8 [3 favorites]


I don't know if anything can be done at this point, but it feels like Zuckerman is lining up with the fascists, and the fascists are prepping to re-elect the current weasels in Washington DC with a re-run of the 2016 weaponization of social media, this time with no Russians needed.

We have accounts of Zuckerman working with right-wing groups, looking to Breitbart as advisors. We have Facebook classifying left-wing accounts like Wonkette as click-bait and limiting their reach. We have Facebook being weaponized in the Australian federal elections and Brexit.

Dealing with Facebook might be just as necessary as dealing with the GOP at this point.
posted by Wilbefort at 6:54 PM on November 8 [2 favorites]


A lot of Facebook’s bullshit would be constrained by requiring more granular and real-time consent to their information harvesting and sharing, banning blanket consents in the constantly updated TOS, because it would turn the current Facebook experience into an impossible tragicomedy of pop-up or in-line disclosures and requests for approvals.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:50 PM on November 8 [1 favorite]


If a Google Plus user could have friended a Facebook user "across" the two services, wouldn't that have made Google Plus more viable?

No, because Facebook would still make sure that you would be a second class citizen in their ecosystem. This is a social issue, so you can't engineer your way out of it - and the failure to acknowledge this by the tech community is a large part of how we got here.

A lot of Facebook’s bullshit would be constrained by requiring more granular and real-time consent to their information harvesting and sharing, banning blanket consents in the constantly updated TOS, because it would turn the current Facebook experience into an impossible tragicomedy of pop-up or in-line disclosures and requests for approvals.

We basically need HIPAA For Everything at this point, because it's the only thing that will get through to these idiots. In addition, we need to ban dual-tier stock structures that leave corporate leadership unaccountable and wind back some of the more absurd aspects of the Section 230 blanket - it is ridiculous that Facebook is indemnified from liability for running defamatory ads.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:02 AM on November 9 [1 favorite]


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