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In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna are joined by Bill Goodwin, investigations editor and Sebastian Klovig Skelton, reporter, Computer Weekly to discuss their stories about Facebook’s machinations against app developers and competitors.
Clare McDonald, business editor, was meanwhile judging at the Waltham Forest Tech Camp, close to her native Essex, so was unable to join the discussion on this occasion. More on that in the next podcast.
Bill and Seb have been shortlisted in the Technology category for the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards, on Tuesday 10 December at the Hilton Bankside, alongside freelance investigative journalist Duncan Campbell. The trio of stories for which they have been shortlisted is:
- Facebook asked George Osborne to influence EU data protection law.
- Facebook leaks: Zuckerberg turned data into dollars in ruthless battle with competitors.
- Facebook’s privacy game – how Zuckerberg backtracked on promises to protect personal data.
They are up against the Financial Times (twice), the BBC, ITV and the Guardian.
Bill and Seb were on the podcast discussing a first tranche of stories based on a cache of 7,000 leaked Facebook documents at the end of July. These legal documents stemmed from legal action that was brought against the social media giant by app maker Six4Three.
Computer Weekly has published the treasure trove of leaked documents – which have also been disclosed to US congressman David Cicilline, chairman of the Congress House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, after Facebook ignored a request, first reported by AP, from the committee to provide them.
The discussion on this podcast starts with how beastly Facebook has been to its ecosystem of third-party app developers. The documents reveal how Facebook used and abused developers, cut off data to competitors, gave privileged access to its friends and used a “pivot to privacy” as camouflage.
Zuckerberg emerges from the documents as a “prescient” mastermind, says Bill, while Seb comments on how paranoia and chaos pervade documents emanating from those lower down the Facebook food chain, many of whom were in the dark over how Facebook’s strategy was emerging and developing.
As Bill and freelance journalist Crina Boros, in a 5,000-word comprehensive narrative, make clear, the documents show how Facebook undermined rivals, such as WhatsApp, in bid to dominate global messaging.
And Seb reports on how early Facebook investor Roger McNamee has suggested his former mentee Mark Zuckerberg’s attitude towards surveillance capitalism is a by-product of Silicon Valley’s toxic culture and business practices.
In this connection, Brian mentions the argument in Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, that Facebook et al are exemplars of a rogue capitalism that needs to be brought to heel in the name of what she describes as democratic values. And Caroline draws attention to Sasha Baron Cohen’s similar critique of social media, and Facebook in particular, when presented with an international leadership award by the Anti-Defamation League.
Taking a break from Facebook, the group finds relief in the UK General Election. On previous podcasts, the team has discussed Labour’s free full-fibre broadband offer, and the manifestos of the three main UK-wide parties. Here Seb, who has reported on the main parties’ manifestos, covers the SNP’s technology policies as presented in its manifesto. A “Green Energy Deal” to support investment in green energy schemes, classifying the internet as an essential service, and setting out legislation to protect children from online harm form the digital centrepiece of the manifesto of what has been the third-biggest party in the House of Commons.
Caroline brings an IR35 lens to bear on the manifestos, finding the Conservatives being urged to join the others in committing to reviewing the tax regulations. It emerged, just before recording, that Labour’s shadow small business minister, Bill Esterson, has back-tracked on comments he made earlier in the week suggesting Labour would scrap an extension of the IR35 reforms to the private sector if it won the General Election.
Anticipating an escape from grim Election Britain to sunny Las Vegas, Caroline gives a brief look ahead to AWS’s re:invent conference. And Brian declares his imminent arrival in Birmingham for the SAP UK & Ireland User Group conference.