Once upon a time in Silicon Valley: How Facebook's open-data nirvana fell apart

Analysis: A lack of rules built upon optimism about the internet and amplified by a growth-at-all costs strategy has given way to scrutiny and skepticism.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Dozens of cardboard cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are seen during an Avaaz.org protest outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Cardboard cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at protest outside the Capitol in 2018.Aaron Bernstein / Reuters file

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By David Ingram and Jason Abbruzzese

It was just six years ago — in what now seems like an alternate reality — that David Poll sent an email to Facebook colleagues questioning why the company would limit outside access to the company’s user data.

Facebook’s developer program, once seen as the future of its business, had let almost anyone gain access to vast swaths of the social network’s user data. But in 2013, worried about competitors and in need of revenue, the company began destroying the core promise of that platform.

Poll, a senior engineer, wrote that the move to close off data access was “sort of unethical.” Bryan Klimt, a software engineer, said the move would make Facebook “the next AOL,” referring to the once-dominant internet provider. In a separate exchange, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that a wide-open developer platform “may be good for the world, but it’s not good for us.”

Those emails, and many others in a cache of about 4,000 leaked documents analyzed this week by NBC News, provide a stark insight into just how much public perception of Facebook, technology and privacy have changed in the span of a few years — and how the consequences of the anything-goes era of social media optimism continue to echo.

Years later, the developer program that Poll, Klimt and other Facebook employees supported would be found to have been the source of an alleged data theft that would lead to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a major catalyst in the growing skepticism over how user data is handled by the massive companies that profit from it.

Poll and Klimt’s advocacy for the open sharing of data is counterintuitive in the current era, when regulators, journalists and privacy advocates are scrutinizing Silicon Valley like never before for abuse of data or breaches of trust.

Before Russia-backed disinformation campaigns and the growing realization that social media could be manipulated, Facebook and tech companies more broadly were regarded by many as a beacon for optimism about the world, and their founders seen as wunderkind visionaries.

User data was seen as the foundation on which some of these companies would build a better world. Tapping Facebook user data as well as information about their friends would allow for the seamless integration of software involving music, gaming and even presidential campaigns. Before the Trump campaign’s use of Cambridge Analytica-harvested Facebook data became an international scandal, the Obama campaign’s use of data and Facebook was regarded as cutting edge.

“The industry essentially said, ‘It makes sense for us all to share information,’” Dipayan Ghosh, who worked at Facebook as a privacy and public policy adviser before leaving the company in 2017, said in an interview. “There really was no concept of rules in this sector.”

Part of the reason for the lack of rules was an inherent optimism in what the internet promised and an abiding respect for its power. Companies that sought to close themselves off risked being left behind, as Klimt wrote in his AOL reference. Instead, the thinking went, Facebook ought to use its data to attract the internet’s best and brightest.

“Developers out there will have all sorts of crazy ideas,” Klimt wrote. “We want them to build those crazy ideas on top of Facebook.”

Facebook this week reiterated its view that the set of 4,000 company documents are misleading and were “cherry-picked” by a startup that is suing Facebook over the loss of access to data. The startup, Six4Three, created an app, Pikinis, that let people easily find photos of their friends in bathing suits.

“The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context. We still stand by the platform changes we made in 2014/2015 to prevent people from sharing their friends' information with developers like the creators of Pikinis,” Paul Grewal, Facebook’s deputy general counsel, said in a statement.

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Klimt and Poll did not respond to requests for comment.

Web 2.0

Facebook would end up drastically changing the developer program and over time create new rules of its own. But the social network and other tech companies were still slow to respond to changing societal perspectives on some of the most basic parts of their platforms — and their businesses.

They were, in part, motivated to focus their efforts elsewhere. Silicon Valley’s rapid ascent as the cradle of new American prosperity was met by a flood of venture capital investment that pushed a growth-at-all-costs mentality, leaving little time for foresight. And the companies’ positions as platforms — detached from the content that their users posted — meant they could attract millions of users without incurring much new overhead.

Now, Facebook says it employs 30,000 content moderators and others who work on safety. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recently told NBC News that the company has needed to make an almost company-wide pivot from growth to security.

Om Malik, a partner at the venture capital firm True Ventures and a veteran technology journalist, noted that those who questioned Facebook during its earlier growth phase were often ignored and sometimes even denied access to cover the company.

“Basically, asking the tough questions meant you’re going to be eased out of the access to the tech circle,” Malik said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Facebook and other tech companies were quickly amassing the kinds of global scale never before seen by private services, with billions of dollars in revenue to match. And while a small number of vocal critics began to ask serious questions about these companies, events like the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010 — in which dissidents relied heavily on social media — meant that the companies still had plenty of goodwill.

The combination of money and success left little room for naysaying.

“It’s about thinking where can things go wrong,” Malik added, “and I think as a company Facebook never asked that question of themselves.”

On Wednesday, Time magazine published its list of the world’s 100 most influential people, including an entry from Facebook ex-president Sean Parker on CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“For many of us, the world that Facebook helped create was the ultimate lesson in unintended consequences,” Parker wrote. “Nobody could have predicted the impact that it would have when billions of people began using it, especially once they had a connected device within reach at all times.”

Parker’s comments echo those of other tech executives who have said their innovations were so revolutionary that anticipating problems proved impossible. But the newly leaked cache of Facebook documents highlights that little time or effort was initially devoted to anticipating downsides, difficult though it may have been.

Anti-social

Since then, the public’s perception of Facebook and Silicon Valley has changed drastically. Zuckerberg and other executives have been called to testify before Congress for hours, while regulators and prosecutors have opened investigations related to Facebook’s handling of data.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this month found that Americans hold negative views of social media companies. Some 57 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter do more to divide the country, and 82 percent say social media sites do more to waste people’s time.

New products introduced by big tech companies, like Facebook’s Portal device, are now often met by immediate skepticism from reviewers about their privacy implications.

And still, there are echoes of the earlier era when companies were relatively casual with data. Datasets about Facebook users from that time period persist. Sometimes they show up unsecured online, as the cybersecurity firm UpGuard said this month when it reported finding datasets with millions of records including people’s likes and interests as well as Facebook passwords for 22,000 people.

But advocates for greater protection of data see some light at the end of tunnel. Facebook’s missteps have raised awareness about the possible abuse of technology, and created momentum for digital privacy laws in Congress and in state legislatures.

“The surreptitious sharing with third parties because of some ‘gotcha’ in the terms of service is always going to upset people because it seems unfair,” said Michelle Richardson, director of the data and privacy project at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

After the past two years, she said, “you can just see the lightbulb going off over the public’s head.”