All hands on deck

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July should have been a moment of relief for Facebook. The company accepted a $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission over privacy issues, after having essentially set the terms of the agreement itself. It settled a case with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which alleged that it had misled investors about the risks of user data being mishandled, for a relatively paltry $100 million. And Facebook reported stellar quarterly earnings on July 24th, beating investor expectations and sending its stock price up.

But inside the company, the mood remained anxious. Several 2020 presidential candidates, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), had called for Facebook to be broken up. The introduction of Libra, a Facebook-created cryptocurrency, had run into strong resistance from regulators around the world who worried that it could destabilize the global financial system. Some employees had questions about Zuckerberg himself. Why had the CEO declined multiple requests to appear at government hearings in Europe, harming Facebook’s reputation? Interns worried about Facebook’s increasingly dim reputation among their peers.

These questions were raised at two open meetings with employees in July. The Verge obtained two hours of audio from these meetings, which include extended question-and-answer sessions between Zuckerberg and his employees. In language that is often more candid than he typically uses in his public comments, Zuckerberg sought to rally the company against Facebook’s competitors, critics, and the US government.

He predicts that Facebook will sue the government to prevent the company from being broken up, calling it an “existential” moment for Facebook, but he acknowledged that it would “still suck.” Answering a question about Warren’s proposal to make Facebook spin off Instagram and WhatsApp, Zuckerberg said:

You have someone like Elizabeth Warren thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies … I mean, if she gets elected president then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. I mean, that’s not the position that you want to be in when you’re, you know, I mean … It’s like, we care about our country, and want to work with our government and do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and fight.

He also said that Facebook’s size is the only reason it can effectively fight election interference, drawing a negative comparison to its onetime rival, Twitter. “It’s why Twitter can’t do as good of a job as we can,” Zuckerberg said. “I mean, they face, qualitatively, the same types of issues. But they can’t put in the investment. Our investment on safety is bigger than the whole revenue of their company.”

Zuckerberg sounded earnest and genial throughout the Q&A sessions. He joked repeatedly about how he would have been fired several times over the years if he had not negotiated for total control over the company, drawing laughter from his employees.

The CEO also spoke earnestly about challenges the company faces, whether it’s about Facebook’s unusually large amount of downtime this year or what obligations the company has for its 30,000 contracted content moderators. (Asked about The Verge’s stories this year on content moderation, Zuckerberg dismissed them as “a little overdramatic.” “With a population of 30,000 people, there’s going to be a distribution of experiences that people have,” Zuckerberg said.)

Elsewhere in the conversations, Zuckerberg presented a plan for halting the global advance of its latest competitor, ByteDance’s video app TikTok. The company introduced a clone named Lasso and released it in Mexico — where TikTok has yet to make inroads — in an attempt to perfect the product before rolling it out elsewhere.

While many of the issues discussed during the meetings are serious, Zuckerberg also sought to lighten the mood. When one person asked whether Facebook would ever use its brain-computer interface technology for ad-targeting purposes, Zuckerberg mused about the challenges of building a brain-computer interface using invasive surgery techniques.

“You think Libra is hard to launch,” Zuckerberg quipped. He imagined what the headlines would say: “Facebook wants to perform brain surgery.”

“I don’t want to see the congressional hearings on that one,” he said, as the room broke into laughter.


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