NPR Planet Money: The Case Against Facebook

December 16, 2020 Interview, Media

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the moment where we’re supposed to ask you to show your support for PLANET MONEY by making a donation, but that’s not exactly fun. So we made this little promo instead.


ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Do you have economic questions rattling around in your head, driving you nuts, keeping you awake at night? You’ve tried shouting them out a window.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why are oil prices negative?

SMITH: But nobody answers. You’ve tried bringing them up during pillow talk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Have you ever heard of an inverted yield curve?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Honey, I have a headache.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Maybe another night.

SMITH: Even Siri doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

SMITH: I know. I know. You’re ready to give up, but there is hope. Hello there. I’m minor podcast celebrity Robert Smith, and here at NPR, we have come up with a miracle answer system. It’s called PLANET MONEY. It’s a portable podcast that you can listen to anywhere. All you have to do is hit the subscribe button. Our crack team will then scour the globe for economic scoops and send what we find directly into your earbuds. It’s easy peasy, and it works. How many dollars would you expect to pay for all the irreverent, learning-packed economic stories you could possibly want? A flat fee of $50? Four easy payments of 19.99? No way – we’ve got a better deal for you. The best way to support the show is to send a donation to your local NPR member station. By heading over to Again, that’s Whatever you’re willing to give, thank you. And just make sure to add $9.95 for shipping and handling because it takes money to make some money. PLANET MONEY, available wherever podcasts are given away. Satisfaction guaranteed.

GOLDSTEIN: As it happens, one of the key staffers working on that House investigation was the other person we talked to in our big tech antitrust show a couple years ago, an attorney named Lina Khan.

LINA KHAN: Yeah, I think you and I met just a few weeks before I joined the House Antitrust Subcommittee.

GOLDSTEIN: By the time we talked to Lina Khan, she had already become famous, or at least antitrust nerd famous, for this paper she published in 2017 when she was still in law school. It was a paper about antitrust law and how it should deal with Amazon and with tech companies more generally.

ARONCZYK: So she talked to us, and then she went off to do that investigation in Congress. And when we talked to her again last week, she told us about her team’s investigation of Facebook, in particular about a moment when they were looking into the Instagram acquisition.

KHAN: So the way it works is, you know, the company submit thousands and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of emails. You’re kind of just, like, mining through them to see if there’s anything there. And then when our team came across this email in particular, it was kind of just, like, a, oh, wow, this really exists kind of moment.

ARONCZYK: The email she’s talking about is this exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s chief financial officer. It took place in early 2012. Facebook was still trying to decide whether or not to buy Instagram. And this email exchange is a big deal in the Facebook lawsuits that were filed last week.

GOLDSTEIN: So it starts when Zuckerberg writes to the CFO about Facebook acquiring companies, quote, “that are building networks that are competitive with our own.” He cites Instagram in particular and says, quote, “if they grow to a large scale, they could be very disruptive to us.”

ARONCZYK: The CFO replies to Zuckerberg. He’s trying to figure out and he’s asking, why do you really want to buy Instagram to, quote, “neutralize a potential competitor, acquire talent, integrate their products with ours?” And he says to Zuckerberg, look, if you’re just buying them to neutralize a competitor, some other competitor was just going to spring up and take their place.

GOLDSTEIN: And then Zuckerberg writes back. And this is, I think, the key email here. He writes back to the CFO, and he says he does want to neutralize a competitor and also integrate their products with Facebook, says it’s both. And he says in this email, even if they buy Instagram and another competitor does spring up, he says, quote, “those new products won’t get much traction.”

ARONCZYK: In other words, if Facebook buys Instagram, Facebook plus Instagram will be so big that new competitors won’t be able to catch up. They won’t be able to compete.

GOLDSTEIN: What did you think when you saw that email?

KHAN: That was definitely a moment where we felt, OK, you know, we’re onto something. We found something great and compelling, in particular because, you know, there’s been speculation for years that Facebook bought up Instagram in order to neutralize a competitive threat. But never did we think that we would be able to find it in an email that in a way that was – it was just so plainspoken and so blatant, frankly.

ARONCZYK: Two months after that email exchange, Facebook announced a deal to buy Instagram for a billion dollars, which was twice as much as the company had been valued at just days before.

GOLDSTEIN: So that is the Facebook-Instagram story. The next key moment comes when Facebook bought WhatsApp. And this one seems a little more subtle to me – right? – because WhatsApp’s a messaging app, not a social network, doesn’t seem obvious to me as a competitive threat to Facebook. But what Facebook realized that I clearly did not is that messaging apps were what people used most often on their phones, and they used them to communicate with their family and closest friends. Also, WhatsApp was growing like crazy in countries all around the world. And, you know, what is a group chat but a social network coming into being?

ARONCZYK: In one email, Facebook’s director of product management called mobile messaging services the biggest threat to our product that I’ve ever seen in my five years here at Facebook, and we are all terrified.

GOLDSTEIN: Also, Zuckerberg himself told Facebook’s board of directors in 2013, quote, “the biggest competitive vector” – whatever – “competitive vector for us is for some company to build out a messaging app for communicating with small groups of people and then transforming that into a broader social network.”

ARONCZYK: The very next year, Facebook bought WhatsApp for roughly $20 billion. That’s like buying 20 Instagrams.

GOLDSTEIN: That’s a lot of Instagrams.

ARONCZYK: That’s a lot of Instagrams.

GOLDSTEIN: One thing that’s worth noting at this point in the story is both the Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions were reviewed by the federal government before they went through. The government looked at it and was like, sure, Facebook, you can buy these companies.

ARONCZYK: Facebook now points to those reviews and says, look, if you had a problem, you should have told us at the time. In a statement last week, the company’s general counsel said that the Federal Trade Commission and the states, quote, “stood by for years while Facebook invested billions of dollars and millions of hours to make Instagram and WhatsApp into the apps that users enjoy today.” And then they said now the agency has announced that no sale will ever be final, no matter the resulting harm to consumers or the chilling effect on innovation.

GOLDSTEIN: We asked Lina Khan about this, and one of the things she says is the government argues in its case that these acquisitions and Facebook’s intent in these acquisitions are part of a broader pattern of behavior, that Facebook’s behavior has changed over time. And she says you can see this when you zoom out and compare Facebook in its early days to Facebook after it bought up these other companies.

KHAN: When Facebook first entered the market in 2004, it was doing so by really trying to compete with MyScape (ph) and – sorry – with MySpace and with other social networks. And it was really trying to make Facebook good for users, right? It was trying to improve privacy protections. It was trying to improve quality. It was really trying to innovate.

ARONCZYK: But then she says after Facebook got big and bought up its potential competitors, that changed.

KHAN: Once Facebook eliminated the competition, in part through buying out rivals, Facebook was no longer disciplined in this way. And so Facebook, over the last decade, has routinely reneged on privacy commitments. And when Facebook announced the acquisition of WhatsApp, there were a lot of concerns that Facebook would roll back those privacy protections. And then the FTC even told Facebook, listen. You have to honor WhatsApp’s existing privacy commitments. And if you don’t, that could actually violate the law. Lo and behold, a few years later, despite initially promising that Facebook would not, you know, merge the WhatsApp data with Facebook’s data or use WhatsApp data for selling ads, a few years later, Facebook goes ahead and does it anyway. And that really hurt users.