Archive for the ‘Facebook’ Category

Facebook Through Glass

Updated. As the PRISM scandal shows no signs of dying down in the public consciousness,Facebook has just released the fullest account to date of the requests it has received from United States law enforcement and governmental authorities for the data surrounding its users.

To borrow a phrase from local news sizzle reels, the numbers may surprise you.

In a report issued today on Facebook’s company blog, general counsel Ted Ullyot wrote:

“For the six months ending December 31, 2012, the total number of user-data requests Facebook received from any and all government entities in the U.S. (including local, state, and federal, and including criminal and national security-related requests) – was between 9,000 and 10,000. These requests run the gamut – from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat. The total number of Facebook user accounts for which data was requested pursuant to the entirety of those 9-10 thousand requests was between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts.

With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of one percent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of U.S. state, local, or federal U.S. government request (including criminal and national security-related requests) in the past six months. We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive.”

More information can be found here, and we’re updating the story as it develops.

UPDATE: Microsoft has followed suit, releasing its own figures on official U.S. data requests including FISA orders in its own blog post shortly following Facebook’s disclosures, writing:

“For the six months ended December 31, 2012, Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts from U.S. governmental entities (including local, state and federal).”

But at first blush, those numbers may not seem as scary as the initial reports on governmental surveillance of web activity would imply. Though the government under FISA does have the right to request as much information as it would like in the name of national security, it seems that those requests have affected a relatively tiny fraction of Facebook users.

For a bit of background: Facebook this week joined several other technology giants including Microsoft and Google in publicly asking the government to change the restrictions prohibiting them from being fully transparent about the extent of their cooperation in the U.S. government’s surveillance activities.

Thus far, requests that Facebook has received from the National Security Agency (NSA) have been kept secret because they are by definition confidential orders executed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — the secrecy is mandated in the name of keeping American citizens safe from equally secretive terrorist organizations. In short, anything under FISA is just like Fight Club — the first and most important rule is that it isn’t discussed.

Facebook has said recently that one reason it has refrained from issuing public statements about its involvement with governmental authorities (such as Google does with its Transparency Report) is because the existence of FISA would make such statements incomplete. In many ways, these companies’ hands have been tied if they want to keep complying with the law.

Now, many of us would love to see whistleblowers within these tech firms flout the law and talk about what exactly is going on, as Edward Snowden has — FISA be damned. Michael Arrington, who I personally think has been nailing exactly how the tech industry should be viewing this issue from day one on his Uncrunched blog, has issued a some compelling calls for industry folks to do just that — but up until now, we’ve only had tech companies asking for a bit more leeway and permission to talk.

While staying within the confines of the law, Facebook today has made a significant stride toward really opening up the way that the government handles its information gathering and disclosures — it will be interesting to see how other companies follow suit.

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The upcoming death of Google Reader  and the addition of hashtags signal Facebook will likely launch a new way to discover and read news at the June 20th press event it’s just sent out mysterious invites to. It could be a sort of “trending articles on Facebook” feature, or a more full-blown RSS reader-style product.

Either could take advantage of Facebook’s massive treasure trove of aggregate data on what people share to surface popular and personally recommended news articles.

The event invite, first spotted by Joanna Stern of ABC News, says “A small team has been working on a big idea. Join us for coffee and learn about a new product.” The conspicuously analog invite was sent out via paper snail mail instead of by email like Facebook usually does. There’s also a coffee stain on the invite. You know where else you find coffee stains? On the newspaper, while you’re reading it, over coffee.

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Nobody knows what Facebook knows. Since most users share semi-privately, it can’t be scraped for trending topics. But Facebook’s algorithms see all. Similar to how it offers ad targeting data in anonymous aggregate, Facebook could surface what articles are being shared most frequently across its user base without violating privacy.

The product could potentially ket people follow outside sources of news through a format like RSS, but we can’t confirm that. The product is likely to take advantage of hashtags that Facebook users can now add to posts to help its algorithms understand what topics different news articles are about.

When I asked Facebook about what more it could do with its data on what people share, it initially offered to put me on the phone with someone, but ended up just referring me to the hashtag announcement from earlier this week. That blog post notes ”Hashtags are just the first step to help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in public conversations. We’ll continue to roll out more features in the coming weeks and months.”

A better way to surface news could be that next step. In fact, I’m pretty much positive it is, though I couldn’t get anyone at Facebook to confirm on the record.

media3Whether the new product includes formal RSS reading capabilities that take advantage of the long-running content syndication standard remains to be seen. Asking users to choose different sources and subscribe to feeds of them could be a lot of work and seem somewhat redundant for the average Facebook user. Still, that kind of functionality could find an audience amongst hardcore Internet users.

As our Ingrid Lunden wrote yesterday, “Lines of code referring to “rssfeeds” have recently started to appear in Facebook’s Graph API code (as spotted by developer and Facebook sleuth Tom Waddington). Linking the RSS feed to a user’s Facebook ID, the code schema also covers such aspects as title, URL and update time. Each RSS feed subsequently has entries and subscribers.” This code could be part of the new product, but it also may be unrelated, having to do with a user’s own posts being an RSS feed, rather than a user reading feeds produced by others.

A Facebook news reader with RSS would come at a perfect time, just two weeks before Google shuts down Google Reader for good. The June 20th launch date might give Facebook just enough time to help people migrate onto its version.

Alternatively, Facebook’s new product could more resemble Reddit or a list trending articles based on what’s being shared the most on the social network. That would make it instantly and easily valuable to people.

Whatever it’s exact design, I hope it won’t just be a clone, but something that combines the unique social signals Facebook has access to with tried-and-true news consumption mediums.

A reader of any form would certainly qualify as a “big idea”, as Facebook is all about connecting you to people, things, and information you care about, and news is by definition what people care about. A successful launch could drastically increase time spent on Facebook, fill it with useful data about what topics people are interested in, offer new advertising opportunities around current events, and most importantly, make us all better informed citizens of Earth.

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Marqeta, the startup that helps businesses nationwide
attain the Starbucks loyalty Card “pay-in-advance for
your coffee” model, is announcing $14 million in new
funding from Greylock IL (an affiliate fund of Greylock
Partners), Granite Ventures, new investor Commerce
Ventures, and a number of leading new angel and unnamed strategic investors. As mentioned above, Marqeta essentially allows
merchants both large and small create a card with
stored value, gift card value, loyalty value and
additional rewards. Retailers get a gifting, loyalty,
promotions, cash back offers, charitable donations
and more. The aim is to create a Starbucks-like card
experience, where you could put any amount on a
pre-paid card, for a merchant. The compelling part of
Marqeta’s offering is that it can provide these pre-paid
amounts from multiple retailers on one payment card
or mobile app. Additional use cases include a variety of marketing
and rewards programs such as digitized employee
rewards, corporate incentive payments and
streamlined school donation campaigns that can sit
on one consumer account and payments vehicle.
Enterprises and merchants alike manage their accounts via a cloud-based portal. The company is also announcing that is powering the
recently launched Facebook Card, a way for people to
give their friends gifts to places like Jamba Juice,
Olive Garden, Sephora, and Target, all on one
reusable gift card purchased from Facebook. Last year Marqeta launched its own loyalty service in
San Francisco. Instead of receiving points and
product rewards, Marqeta merchants give consumers
more money to spend in grocery, restaurants, dry
cleaning and beyond. Marqeta also debuted a
universal gifting feature with merchants including Jamba Juice, 1-800 Flowers and thousands of other
online and brick and mortar retailers via a partnership
with Discover. Jason Gardner, Founder and CEO of Marqeta,
explains that merchants generally don’t want to
change their point of sale when adding a loyalty
program, they want to use their existing infrastructure
and form factor (i.e. credit cards); and they don’t want
to have to retrain anyone in using the new loyalty systems. Marqeta satisfies all of these wants and
needs, he says. Other customers include Target and
Jamba Juice. While other startups like Belly offer loyalty programs,
Gardner contends that basic loyalty technologies
don’t drive customers through the doors of
merchants. What does push traffic into an
establishment is if a customer already has money on
a card and wants and can spend that money. And there is the possibility they could earn even more
money by spending this money. Gardner says that the new funding will be used
towards investing in additional infrastructure,
technology and hiring.

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If you want a digital detox, you’re going to have to pull
the trigger yourself. Social Roulette is an app that
would delete one in six users’ Facebook account
data, but its founder confirms it’s been blocked by
Facebook so it no longer functions. While there’s no
specific policy prohibiting apps from deleting your data, Social Roulette is clearly counter to Facebook’s
mission and business model. Social Roulette launched on Saturday as an online
version of Russian Roulette, the lethal real-life game
where a player places one bullet in a six-chamber
revolver pistol, spins the cylinder, and fires the gun at
their head. You die, you lose. But on Social Roulette,
it’s implied that having your Facebook account deleted means you won. If you’re hit that one in six
chance, the site explains “we can completely remove
all your posts, friends, apps, likes, photos, and
games before completely deactivating it.” Otherwise,
it just posts to Facebook saying you survived the
game, and encouraging your friends to risk their digital lives. Social Roulette describes itself, saying “Everyone
thinks about deleting their account at some point, it’s
a completely normal reaction to the overwhelming
nature of digital culture. Is it time to consider a new
development in your life? Are you looking for the
opportunity to start fresh? Or are you just seeking cheap thrills at the expense of your social network?
Maybe it’s time for you to play Social Roulette.” Co-
founder Kyle McDonald tells me he came up with the
idea a few weeks ago, but hacked it together in just
four hours with Jonas Lund and Jonas Jongeja after
Lund had an idea for how it could actually work. The app capitalizes on exhaustion with social
networks. The dizzying stream of information,
constant success theater, and perceived
“responsibility” to be contactable can grow tiresome
after a while. When I asked co-founder McDonald
about the philosophy behind Social Roulette, he told me”Everyone talks about deleting their Facebook
account, but we rarely take action. Sometimes we
need a simple game to help take the responsibility off
our shoulders, and provide a moment for
reflection. Social Roulette is more of a provocation
rather than a tool.” Social Roulette seemed to be looking for a fight,
considering it’s selling t-shirts of its logo, which rips
off Facebook’s and sticks it inside a chamber of a
six-shooter pistol. Facebook
has aggressively pursued others who’ve tried to coin
off of its trademarks. Facebook has also recently shut off API access to apps it perceives as
competitors like Vine, as well as ones like Voxer that
don’t share much back to it. Facebook has also
blocked apps without specifying a reason but that
have been accused of spamming like Path. Now McDonald tells me, “It took us 4 hours to create
the project, and it took another 4 hours after the
launch for Facebook to respond by blocking the API
key and restricting our ability to create Facebook
applications. The app was flagged by an automated
system for ‘creating a negative user experience.’ After review, they decided they don’t like our
logo either. We tried to follow the branding
guidelines but we must have misunderstood them.”
You could say the shut down was a bit murky as
there’s not a specific platform policy that the app’s
data deletion function violates, but Facebook typically enforces the spirit, not the letter, of the law. It might
end up adding a specific provision banning apps that
focus on deleting your data. Facebook tells me in an official statement, “We take
action against apps that violate our platform policies
as laid out here: https://developers.facebook.com/
policy/, in order to maintain a trustworthy experience
for users.” It didn’t specify which policy, though.
However, the app did allow users to circumvent Facebook’s account deactivation feature, which is
designed to let people turn off their account but turn it
back on later without losing their content and
connections. This could be considered a violation of
Facebook Platform Policy I.3 that states “You must
not circumvent (or claim to circumvent) our intended limitations on core Facebook features and
functionality.” This brings up the larger issue of where Facebook
draws the line when determining when something is
too close to its native functionality. Some developers
believe the Facebook Platform is unstable because of
Facebook’s power to pick and choose who can do
what. Without API access, Social Roulette can’t let people
login with their Facebook account, or delete content
from their profile. Surprisingly, McDonald is optimistic
that Social Roulette will win Facebook’s approval and
live on to kill another account. “We’re currently
working to address this and other issues and expect a return to normal service some time this week.” I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. Facebook’s goal to
connect the world and earn money through advertising
based on their personal data is directly threatened by
Social Roulette. Facebook purposefully makes
deleting your account tough so you don’t do it in a
momentary fit of anger. Even if it receives jeers for shutting down apps at will, it’s not going to put that
gun in any third-party developer’s hands.

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Larry Yu, the public relations executive who has
headed up Facebook’s corporate communications
operation for five years and helped steer the company
through the publicity blitz surrounding its IPO, is
leaving the social networking company. He
announced his departure this morning in a post on Facebook, writing: “Nearly five years ago, I joined some friends at a
privately-held company called Facebook to help a
small team scale and expand upon the company’s
story. That journey was, in a word, crazy. And fun.
Terrifying. And gratifying. So I’m off to do it again. I’m
joining my friends Brandee, Brian and Sean to help build The Pramana Collective, a project-focused
communications consultancy that works with cool
companies.” Yu is not the only tech PR big wig on the roster at the
Pramana Collective, which first emerged earlier this
spring. The Brandee he refers to above is of course
Brandee Barker, who headed up Facebook PR from
2006 to 2010; Brian is Brian O’Shaughnessy, who
previously led communications at Skype after four years at Google; and Sean is Sean Garrett, who
previously headed up PR at Twitter. Sean Garrett wrote in a post on his personal blog that
Yu will be joining Pramana as a partner next month,
and added a few details on the specialties he’ll be
bringing to the firm: “Brian, Brandee and I have all worked with Larry in the
past, and we know that his close-to-20 years of
experience is a perfect fit for The Pramana Collective
and our clients. Beyond being a thoughtful guy who is
universally liked and respected, Larry knows how to
navigate companies through chaotic growth stages with confidence and calm. And we all admire how he
makes financials, process and operations look easy,
maybe even fun (well, almost).” It’s a loss for Facebook, to be sure, but a big gain for
the startup world. We’ll certainly be watching to see
how Pramana shapes the conversation as it takes on
clients.