Zuck Just Launched Another WMD: A Weapon of Mass Distraction

Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook is pivoting towards a “privacy-focused platform” centered on encrypted messaging services. The most perceptive critiques, like those from Zeynep Tufekci, Sue Halpern and Scott Galloway, expose this “pivot” as a classic tactic from the Zuckerberg playbook: deflect from the core issues and get the world to “look over here” while Facebook does something nefarious behind the scenes that undermines the very stability of our society.

Zuckerberg tells us all to focus on data center locations, ephemeral messaging, and encryption — privacy issues that are obviously legitimate but also completely orthogonal to the core privacy issues Facebook has exploited for the past decade. By focusing on these issues and pretending Facebook hasn’t thought through its business model for this “new vision,” Zuckerberg hopes we will ignore Facebook’s end game: to control every interaction you have on your phone — from your most intimate communications with friends and family, to hailing an Uber, ordering dinner, buying a home, or checking out a new movie. This “pivot” is about killing all the apps on your phone, so Facebook’s conversational interfaces can handle everything you ever need in your life.

To provide cover for this plan, Zuckerberg for the umpteenth time gives us that classic privacy-focused narrative. He makes it seem like Facebook’s 40,000 employees are all standing at the bottom of a mountain, ready to climb a tortuous new path toward that holy grail of privacy, steeling their resolve as they take that first step on a new and difficult journey. They don’t know where it will lead, and obviously, Facebook’s business will suffer. But it’s a journey they must take for the good of the world. And once they get there, we will all feel safe again. Somehow we just never get there. Instead, we keep beginning new journeys as we conveniently forget old ones; and Facebook increases its control over every aspect of our lives while weaponizing that control to make money no matter how it affects our global economic and political systems. It’s a movie we’ve seen many times by now.

But there’s something much more devilish about Zuckerberg’s announcement last week than justifying strategic business decisions by slapping the word “privacy” in front of them. That’s literally what Facebook has done for 15 years. If it still fools you, you are indeed a sucker and you deserve the brave new world you have already entered. The more nefarious trick Zuckerberg has played, which not even the critics seem to have noticed, is that this announcement is not at all new. The media has universally described this as a pivot, referring to it as a “manifesto for a new social network” and a set of “profound changes.” Let me be clear: this is not a new strategy! In fact, Zuckerberg made this “pivot” in 2012! He is simply announcing it now as a way to distract from his end game.

Here’s the truth. By 2012, Zuckerberg, Chris Cox, Javi Olivan, Sam Lessin and Facebook’s other top product executives all recognized one key fact: most people were now beginning to prefer one-to-one and small group messaging over public forum interactions like News Feed. This is why the anti-competitive scheme at the heart of the Six4Three case was initially focused on messaging apps. While many companies were permitted to access user data without consent or privacy controls so long as they purchased an exorbitant amount of mobile ads, Facebook completely blocked messaging apps out of participating in its pay-to-play scheme.

Zuckerberg put Javi Olivan in charge of monopolizing the messaging industry. Olivan is currently Facebook’s second most powerful product executive today behind Chris Cox, but he keeps a very low public profile relative to his influence within Facebook. He is the Jared Kushner of the Zuckerberg empire. Olivan’s view was that a small number of competitive messaging apps would ultimately lead to the death of Facebook, which would continue to hemorrhage users to these apps. Zuckerberg and Olivan knew this was Facebook’s biggest threat in 2012, and it needed to be addressed head on.

Olivan, at Zuckerberg’s direction, began shutting messaging apps completely out of Facebook Platform in 2012. WeChat, Line, Kakao, Path, MessageMe and similar apps were targeted the hardest. They were shut off from all public Platform APIs, usually without even being notified by Facebook, and even though Facebook for years had told the world these APIs were offered on non-discriminatory terms to all companies as part of its open platform (just like the platform Apple runs for iPhone apps, where any law-abiding app can participate on a level playing field).

In 2013, Zuckerberg took his plan to destroy messaging apps even further. He began prohibiting these apps even from purchasing advertising on Facebook. So the entire messaging app ecosystem was now blocked out of the largest software economy in the world. This created an opening for the struggling Facebook Messenger app to gain traction. Make no mistake: Facebook Messenger’s success is a direct result of these anti-competitive actions taken against WeChat, Line, Kakao, Path, MessageMe, and others in 2013. These kinds of apps were both shut off from freely available Platform APIs and from purchasing Facebook ads — a short-term sacrifice in marginal ad revenues that Zuckerberg was willing to make in order to dominate the messaging industry.

By late 2013, WhatsApp was the only real threat blocking Facebook’s path to messaging dominance. WhatsApp didn’t rely on Facebook. It used your phone contacts to build its graph of real-world connections. So Olivan bought the VPN app Onavo to track WhatsApp and figure out how big of a threat it was becoming across different geographic markets. Once it became clear that WhatsApp was truly an existential threat, Zuckerberg put together a package hardly anyone would refuse: $20 billion for a company that generated only $20 million in revenues. With WhatsApp now under Facebook’s control and every other competitor on life support thanks to Olivan and Zuckerberg’s anti-competitive scheme (the same scheme that shut down Six4Three!), Facebook had a clear path towards controlling the new dominant form of human interaction: one-to-one and small group messaging. That pivot happened in 2012 and it was fully executed by 2015 and 2016. The so-called “pivot” announced last week is actually just a post-mortem. A post-mortem that has everyone fooled — yet again!

The real issue here is not whether to keep Facebook’s family of apps separate or to merge them. Facebook already shares all the data that matters across these apps. Whether it merges them or not misses the point, because they are already merged in the ways that count for Facebook’s business and for our privacy and anti-competition laws. Rather, the debate over merging Facebook’s apps is mostly another sideshow manufactured by Zuckerberg to ensure we never even recognize the real issue: that Facebook has already achieved through illegal means a coup on the entire messaging industry. That coup is complete. We all let it happen the last time we bought Zuckerberg’s pivot to a “privacy-focused platform”.

Far from beginning a pivot, Zuckerberg’s announcement last week is about reaping the spoils at the end of a successful pivot that consolidated Facebook’s control over messaging. And he gets away with it because he’s smarter than us. It was a brilliant move to say that Facebook can’t abuse your data anymore because, with encryption turned on, “we’re not even going to be able to see it.” That seems to make perfect sense on its face. Now, I would not hold my breath that Facebook actually won’t store and weaponize your texts. It has a history of doing so, and also of making promises it doesn’t intend to keep when it comes to messaging, like when it paraded Brian Acton around the world to lie to governments that it would be virtually impossible to merge WhatsApp and Messenger. But even if it ends up being true, it doesn’t change a single thing about Facebook’s surveillance apparatus and business model. Here’s why.

Zuckerberg decided in 2012 that the future of Facebook was to control the phone without having to build one. He knew that unless you spent most of your time on your phone through Facebook that Facebook would not be long for this world. That’s why messaging became Facebook’s new DNA within the company by 2012. By 2014, that thesis crystallized into viewing the future of messaging apps as another two-sided platform, one that could act as a transaction and experience layer for all apps (just like the original Facebook Platform announced in 2007). This is why Olivan was so intent on spying on WeChat, Kakao and similar apps by hacking the Android permissions. WeChat, Kakao and others had executed the two-sided platform strategy well in the messaging context, and Facebook needed to copy and crush them. Thus, Messenger Platform was born.

The thesis behind Messenger Platform was to eventually kill all the other apps on your phone, at least practically speaking in terms of the overall amount of time you spend using them. Zuckerberg thought that if Facebook got all the other apps on your phone to interact with you through Facebook’s messaging properties, then eventually Facebook could build a meta-bot that would wipe out all these other third-party bots and manage your entire life for you. This opens the door to a world where you no longer tap on Uber to get somewhere. Rather, you request an Uber through Messenger or WhatsApp or another Facebook property. What consolidating the Facebook family of apps really means for Facebook is that it can deploy a single two-sided transaction platform to control all the other apps you have on your phone while still reaching all its users across the entire family of apps. Essentially, Facebook will serve as a funnel that every person goes through to every company they buy from and every experience they want to have. That’s what this announcement was really about.

It’s the same bait-and-switch Facebook pulled on desktop and mobile apps in 2014 and 2015 that is at the heart of our lawsuit. And because Facebook is the only game in town, this same strategy deployed on Messenger Platform has worked again. As of mid-2018, there were over 60 million businesses and 300,000 third-party chat bots on Facebook Messenger, which has achieved David Marcus’ stated goal of becoming “the Yellow Pages of messaging”. Just like in 2014 and 2015, the lambs have all been led to the slaughter; Zuckerberg’s announcement last week is just the big distraction that causes us all to relax as he draws blood.

So, if the end game is monopolization of the messaging industry, and if the messaging industry now provides the most intuitive interaction layer for all transactions and experiences we have, then the business model is not hard to see. And, believe me, Facebook figured out the business model for this end game long before they slapped the word “privacy” onto the front of Zuckerberg’s announcement. Even if you are naive enough to buy Facebook’s full encryption promise, it doesn’t affect the business model. Facebook doesn’t need to know that you texted your roommate you want Mexican food, because you are now ordering Mexican food from Grubhub through Messenger! In this brave new world, Facebook doesn’t even need App Events to continue to suck your private data from all the other apps you use on your phone, because apps have already ceded that interaction to Facebook.

By consolidating all your transactions and experiences within its conversational interfaces, Facebook can continue to surveil every aspect of your life without ever needing to see the actual content of your texts or keep its malicious APIs and SDKs hooked into all your other apps. If regulators close those loopholes, Zuckerberg already has new loopholes open. He’s always a few steps ahead.

And he’s thought through all the permutations, years ago. If companies like Grubhub don’t continue to play ball with Messenger Platform, you can bet your bottom dollar Facebook will make them suffer. Resistors will come around, eventually — most of them already have. Just ask the more than 5,000 companies who entered into secretive whitelist agreements with Facebook in order to join this cabal years ago. And if somehow the core thesis turns out to be wrong, if people don’t want to transact through messaging, don’t fret — the old public forum version of Facebook hasn’t gone anywhere. The strategy is fully hedged; there are no unknown unknowns. Facebook increases its control over your life no matter what the future may hold.

Zuckerberg has had all our heads in the noose for more than five years now. This announcement is just the big distraction while he kicks the stool out from under us, all in the name of that unattainable Valhalla towards which 40,000 Facebook employees now march: that Valhalla we call “privacy”!