Feb 25, 2020 - Technology

"Facebook: The Inside Story" paints a revealing portrait of the tech giant

Penguin Random House

Tech writer Steven Levy's new book, "Facebook: The Inside Story," goes on sale on Tuesday. He told Axios his reporting for the 583-page tome, which he started working on in 2015, took a dramatic turn after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and revelations following the 2016 election.

Why it matters: Since Levy already had a seat inside the company when its broader problems arose, he was on the frontlines as Facebook scrambled to address an onslaught of challenges posed by policymakers in Washington and elsewhere.

What he's saying: "Just as Facebook didn’t think it was going to be spending as much energy on policy, neither did I," Levy said in a phone interview Monday.

Background: Levy said he originally thought his reporting would center largely on Facebook's controversial Internet.org effort in India. The project offered subsidized access to the mobile internet, but critics said it undermined principles of net neutrality.

Flashback: The book focuses in part on some of the very past actions that are now inviting scrutiny from antitrust enforcers. Those include Facebook efforts to respond to perceived competitive threats by, for instance, acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp.

Between the lines: In the book, Levy also delves into Facebook's efforts to crack into the smartphone business.

  • Facebook initially had a project to build a mobile OS to rival Google and Apple, but later scrapped that in favor of a customized version of Android that put Facebook's apps front and center. 
  • It worked with HTC on what was supposed to be the first of many "Facebook Home" phones, but that flopped so badly that no successors emerged.

The big picture: Levy isn't the only one with a Facebook book in the works. The New York Times' Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel are focusing on the company's reaction to its many recent scandals, while Bloomberg's Sarah Frier has another book, "No Filter," that focuses on Facebook-owned Instagram.

What's next: Levy said there's plenty left to tell of the Facebook story. "We still don’t know the outcome of Libra or, more to the point, where Facebook's secure private groups initiative is going," he said. "I wasn’t going to hang around for 10 years to find out if VR is the future of platforms."

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Report: Facebook in talks to buy stake in Indian telecom company Reliance Jio

Mark Zuckerberg attending the 56th Munich Security Conference in Germany on Feb. 15. Photo: Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Facebook is said to be in talks to buy a 10% stake in Indian telecom operator Reliance Jio, according to the Financial Times.

Why it matters: Facebook has long sought to invest in big markets where internet connectivity is sparse, expensive, or both — figuring that a boost in internet usage will result in more users. Its last approach, subsidizing free use of Facebook, was poorly received in India. This would appear to be a different means to achieve the same end.

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Facebook will indefinitely pay contractors it has sent home

Photo: Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

Facebook will pay its contract workers indefinitely, even if they aren't able to carry on their normal duties, as it directs most of its labor force to work from home to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

What they're saying: "I don't think we see an end to that," CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters Wednesday on giving full pay to its contracted content moderators whose work can't be done remotely.