Poking Facebook (02138 Magazine)
Monday December 3rd, 2007
Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg created one of the most trafficked sites on the Web and became a paper billionaire as a result. But ongoing lawsuits suggest that Facebook's origins are murkier than Zuckerberg would like to admit. Is the man many are calling Harvard's next Bill Gates telling the truth?
We spent a lot of our time trying to get Mark to sort of follow up with us... He would say 'I should have something done in the next couple of weeks.' It’s May 24, 2007, and on stage at the San Francisco Design Center, Mark Zuckerberg stares out at an audience of 800 software developers and looks terrified. Loud techno music pulses. Behind him, a slick slideshow cues up on a big screen. “Today ... together ... we’re going to start a movement,” he begins. A few seconds later, as Zuckerberg—all 5’8”, 150 pounds, and 23 years of him—launches into his presentation, his voice cracks.
The young man often hailed as the next Bill Gates is onstage to announce the latest advance in Facebook, the website he cooked up in his Kirkland House room in early 2004 that has blossomed into one of the Internet’s most-trafficked sites. Facebook allows users to create online profiles and interact with friends, and the site’s clean interface has distinguished it from more cluttered social networks such as MySpace and Friendster. Facebook users swap photos, play games, compare movie interests, plan parties, or simply “poke” hot strangers.
Once only open to students, Facebook opened its doors to the world late last year, allowing anyone to sign up. A hockey-stick graphic on the screen behind Zuckerberg shows the resulting surge in membership, from about 100,000 in June ’04 to over 24 million in May ’07. (As of November, Facebook had nearly 50 million users.) But now Facebook is going further, allowing outside developers to design programs that can work on members’ pages and reach millions of potential users. It’s a bold step that will do even more to bolster the site’s popularity.
Decked out in his geek uniform of jeans, Adidas sandals, a T-shirt, and a North Face fleece, Zuckerberg tries to convey the gravitas of the moment: “Right now, social networks are closed platforms,” he says, “and, today, we’re going to end that.”
Hands uplifted, he waits for the applause.
Mark Zuckerberg may not yet have the stage presence of, say, Steve Jobs, but give him time; he has plenty of ego and ambition, and he is quickly developing a mythology. A confluence of intelligence, naïveté, and hubris, Zuckerberg can be both brilliant and immature. A self-styled revolutionary who speaks often of “trying to make the world a more open place,” he is sometimes smug and often comes across as brash. He once handed out business cards that read: “I’m CEO … bitch.”
Zuckerberg has regularly suggested that money does not much interest him, that he only wants to “make revolutionary things.” In the past, he deflected billion-dollar Facebook suitors such as Yahoo. The Wall Street Journal reported that, during March 2006 negotiations with Yahoo executives, Zuckerberg refused to meet over a weekend because his girlfriend was in town. “When I’m hanging out with her, I tend not to be that engaged [in work],” he later said. Then again, he might just have been holding out for a better price: In late October, Microsoft paid $240 million for a 1.6-percent stake in Facebook, a sum that valued the company at $15 billion. Zuckerberg owns 20 percent of Facebook, a $3-billion stake.
It’s no surprise that Zuckerberg is increasingly compared to Gates, an earlier generation’s high-tech billionaire and Harvard dropout. But geek style and enormous net worth aren’t all that Zuckerberg has in common with Gates: Like the Microsoft co-founder, he has had to weather allegations that his greatest achievement is the result of ripping off the ideas of others. Now, Zuckerberg finds himself ensnared by several lawsuits, none more potentially damaging than that brought by three Harvard grads in the wake of Facebook’s 2004 launch. The recent graduates charged that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them, and they have spent years in court trying to prove it.
The media have mostly glossed over ConnectU Inc. v. Facebook Inc., now unfolding in a Boston courthouse. Most articles depict the case as either a cash grab or a blip on Facebook’s march to global domination. But interviews with people familiar with the lawsuit, and a close examination of court records, suggest that, at the least, the case raises troubling questions about the ethics of this new billionaire.
The plaintiffs are three Harvard grads: Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin rowers currently training for the Beijing Olympics, and Divya Narendra, who since graduation has worked in finance in New York and Boston. In 2002, the three friends dreamed up an online social network called Harvard Connection (subsequently renamed ConnectU), later asking Zuckerberg to finish programming it. Instead of fulfilling his end of the bargain, the plaintiffs say, Zuckerberg stole their ideas and source code to build his own competing social network. “We got royally screwed,” Narendra says in a deposition.
Now this four-year “blood feud,” as one judge described it, is set to finally play out. Court-authorized forensic data experts are rifling through Zuckerberg’s computer hard drives, searching for code and evidence of intellectual property theft. If they find anything, the ConnectU group hopes to take over Facebook, asks that the site be shut down, and demands damages equal to or greater than the site’s value. If they don’t, the case will likely be tossed out.
Onstage at the developers’ conference, Zuckerberg shows no signs of being a man with the world on his shoulders. “This has been fun,” he says. “It’s working exactly as I thought it would.”
Growing up in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., an affluent enclave just north of New York City, Zuckerberg, the son of a dentist and a psychiatrist, showed an early interest in computer programming. Just before sixth grade, armed with his first desktop PC and the book C++ for Dummies, he began teaching himself how to code. At first, he struggled. “It was too hard for me, so I quit,” he said in court documents. (Zuckerberg and other participants in the lawsuit declined to be interviewed for this article.) “I guess, like, a little while after that, I started learning other [computer] languages and just making random things … I’d make games for myself that I thought were fun, just like dorky things.” In ninth grade, Zuckerberg made a computerized version of Risk, the popular board game. His version was set during the Roman Empire, a period of history that has long fascinated him; he can read and write Latin and Greek, and considered concentrating in classics at Harvard. After his junior year in high school, he attended Harvard Summer School for a three-month intensive course in ancient Greek. On Zuckerberg’s Harvard application, David Petrain, his summer-school instructor, described his pupil as a “rare combination of brilliant student and thoroughly likable human being.”
By that point, Zuckerberg had left Dobbs Ferry for Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Excelling in math and science, he threw himself into his classes. He also joined the fencing team, a sport about which he rhapsodized on his Harvard application: “[Fencing] has always proven to be the perfect medium. … I rarely find myself doing anything more enjoyable than fencing a good bout.” While a senior at Exeter, Zuckerberg and friend Adam D’Angelo designed a music plug-in called Synapse that would play songs in patterns based on the user’s listening habits. Zuckerberg and D’Angelo, who is now Facebook’s chief technology officer, made it freely available online. When tech website Slashdot linked to the plug-in, Zuckerberg got his first taste of the big money in computer programming: WinAmp, Microsoft, AOL, and others all wanted to buy Synapse; Zuckerberg later claimed that Microsoft was ready to shell out $2 million. But the two friends decided not to sell just then.
“I don’t really like putting a price-tag on the stuff I do,” Zuckerberg would tell the Harvard Crimson. “That’s just, like, not the point.”
It can be difficult to know when Zuckerberg is serious. He has a dry, mischievous sense of humor that sometimes verges on obnoxious. He did subsequently try to sell Synapse, he told the Crimson, only to find that interest had waned. But, thanks to his self-abnegating public statements, that missed opportunity has been portrayed as an act of noble volition.
At Harvard, Zuckerberg behaved like a typical college kid. He rushed Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity. According to the Boston Globe, he declared an affinity for Asian women. He skipped classes and blew off homework. “It’s a good thing I can B.S. math proofs on the board in real time,” he wrote in an online journal he kept during one project.
During his freshman and sophomore years, his approach to Web design began to crystallize. “Whenever I’m about to begin a coding project, I always get sort of overwhelmed … ,” he explained in the journal. “I know I can code well, but I’m not so confident about the design and I know how important that is to the final product, so I always like to get the design out of the way first … I start with a simple design and build pages on top of that.”
A stripped-down design is, of course, one of the hallmarks of Facebook; by contrast, MySpace looks like Times Square at night. Equally important to the site’s early success, it met a need for a college-specific social network. That aspect of Facebook is also one of the main reasons Zuckerberg is being sued.
As boys, Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses were practically neighbors. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, 26, are from Greenwich, Conn., less than 20 miles from Dobbs Ferry. Aside from being smart children from well-to-do families, however, they share few similarities. The twins, Olympic crew hopefuls, are the sons of a former Wharton School professor who now works as an investment consultant. The “craggy, Neanderthal-esque” twosome, as the Crimson described them, studied economics. Where Zuckerberg is pale and thin, the Winklevoss twins are tall and fit. Their style is more prepster than geek: They once rowed a crew race while wearing button-down shirts and ties. Since their graduation in 2004, the twins have raced all over the world, recently winning gold medals at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. Their father supports their training. When Zuckerberg moved to California in the summer of 2004, by contrast, his parents paid only for his cell phone bills and health insurance.
During their junior year, the twins began sketching out the social network that they hoped would unify Harvard students. The idea came from Narendra, an applied math major from Bayside, N.Y., whom Cameron had met in freshman Spanish class; Narendra and the Winklevosses later lived together in Pforzheimer House. “The three of us were the best of friends,” Tyler would say. “Whenever any of us acted, we all trusted in the other person to act for the betterment of everybody in the group.”
In December 2002, Narendra told the Winklevosses of his vision for an online social network for college students. The Winklevosses liked the idea, and the three decided to bring it to life, naming it Harvard Connection. “It was intended to be a collection of profiles of individuals who wanted to get to know other individuals … at Harvard or abroad or outside of Harvard,” Narenda would say.
They would have to build a website, but none of the budding entrepreneurs had enough coding experience to do so. They needed programmers—which meant that they would have to share their ideas with outsiders. By November 2003, Narendra and the Winklevosses were ready to get Harvard Connection off the ground. The three friends, now seniors, had mapped out much of the site’s design and discussed how to attract users and advertisers. Their programmers—Sanjay Mavinkurve, Joe Jackson, and Victor Gao—had already made progress on a large chunk of the coding: front-end pages, the registration system, a database, and back-end coding. “All three of us were fairly excited about … the idea,” Narendra said. “I [knew] it had potential to be something that was really big and something that we could down the road make money on.” Half the network would be a dating section, where Harvard students could upload profiles. The other half would help make connections, whether to look for jobs, swap information about classes, or just hang out online. There was even a way users could connect with each other; Victor Gao called it a “handshake.”
The group planned to establish the network at Harvard, then expand to other schools. But first they had to finish the “connect” portion of the site. Gao, a senior in Mather House, had opted not to become a full partner in the venture. Instead, he asked to be compensated for hours worked and was paid about $400. The team sought an ace replacement to finish the job.
“We needed a programmer who was as committed to the overall business as we were,” Narendra said in a court statement. “We decided that the next programmer brought in should be made an equal member of the development team … [and] would receive equal financial benefit from the eventual website … ”
Zuckerberg was an easy choice. Then a sophomore computer science concentrator, he had recently gained campus notoriety by creating a website called “facemash” that flashed photos of two Harvard students side-by-side and asked users to click on the one they considered more attractive. To get the photos, Zuckerberg had hacked into school servers and copied pictures from house directories, informally known as facebooks. He suspected from the start that his program would land him in trouble. “Perhaps Harvard will squelch it for legal reasons without realizing its value as a venture that could possibly be expanded to other schools (maybe even ones with good-looking people ... ),” Zuckerberg wrote in his online journal. “But one thing is certain, and it’s that I’m a jerk for making this site. Oh well. Someone had to do it eventually ... ”
Facemash’s questionable taste and Zuckerberg’s hacking caused a furor. The Harvard College Administration Board, the college’s disciplinary committee (known as the Ad Board), placed Zuckerberg on probation for “improper social behavior,” but his exploits caught Narendra’s eye. In early November, he e-mailed the programmer: “We’re very deep into developing a site which we would like you to be a part of and ... which we know will make some waves on campus.”
Within days, Zuckerberg was talking to the Harvard Connection team and preparing to take over programming duties from Gao. The plaintiffs say Zuckerberg was briefed on the confidential nature of the project and the plan to expand to other schools, using the site as an advertising base. According to the plaintiffs, Zuckerberg was intrigued by the idea. “We were very concerned the whole time about … letting the cat out of the bag,” Cameron Winklevoss said in a deposition. “We communicated this multiple times to Mr. Zuckerberg—that it’s very important to get this to market first.” Zuckerberg’s attorneys have denied those claims. The plaintiffs also say that Zuckerberg was given a choice about the terms of his partnership. Although his attorneys have denied that any formal discussion about compensation or ownership of Harvard Connection took place, Gao claims otherwise: “I told him that [Narendra and the Winklevosses] would either pay him on a rolling basis or take him on as a partner with the possibility of taking an equal stake,” Gao told the court. “He became visibly excited. He told me that he wanted the latter option … because he thought the Harvard Connection website had the potential to reach out to a very large user base.”
Gao relayed Zuckerberg’s alleged decision to the team and handed over the keys to the Harvard Connection code. On or about November 12, according to the plaintiffs, Zuckerberg began work. Ten days later, he e-mailed Gao and Narendra to tell them that the site was almost ready. “I have most of the coding done, and I think that once I get the graphics we’ll be able to launch this thing,” Zuckerberg e-mailed.
But for the next two months, the plaintiffs say, Zuckerberg made himself scarce. He postponed meetings, was slow to return calls and e-mails, and allegedly refused to let the team see his work. He offered a variety of explanations: His cell phone was muted, his computer science problem sets were taking up too much time, he forgot to bring his laptop charger home for Thanksgiving and his computer died. As the Harvard Connection launch date was pushed back week after week, the plaintiffs grew increasingly anxious. “We spent a lot of our time trying to get Mark to sort of follow up with us,” Narendra said. "Cameron sent him emails … We would, you know, call him and ask him, ‘Hey, what’s the latest on the website?’… He would say, ‘… I should have something done in the next couple weeks.’”
In mid-December, Narendra and the Winklevosses finally met with Zuckerberg in his dorm room. Though nothing was ever put down on paper—an oversight that would weaken their subsequent case— they claim that they again promised Zuckerberg a fair share of any future revenue. Zuckerberg allegedly confirmed his interest and assured them that the site was almost complete. On the whiteboard in his room, Cameron says, Zuckerberg had scrawled multiple lines of code under the heading “Harvard Connection.” This would be the only time the plaintiffs saw any of his work.
On January 14, 2004, the Harvard Connection team went to talk to Zuckerberg once more; Zuckerberg informed them that he was involved with another project. He did not elaborate, and the two sides did not substantively speak again.
On February 4, Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook.
“None of us knew about it until we picked up the [Crimson],” Tyler Winklevoss said in a deposition. “We read this article that says ‘thefacebook’”—Zuckerberg’s original name for the site— “‘launched by Mark Zuckerberg,’ and we sort of stepped back and were like, ‘Well, that sounds like our idea …’”
Within a few days, hundreds of students had signed up for Facebook. Within two weeks, that number had swelled to 4,000; after a month, 10,000; by June, 100,000. Zuckerberg and his early teammates—Eduardo Saverin, a frat brother who was the company’s first CEO; Dustin Moskovitz, who helped with the early programming and is now a VP of engineering at Facebook; Chris Hughes, who became a Facebook spokesman; and Andrew McCollum, who helped expand the site soon after it launched—were adding schools to Facebook as quickly as they could code.
Harvard Connection never had a chance.
Success in the tech world is usually about execution, not ideas—original ideas are rare in such a competitive field—and, when Facebook launched in February 2004, the notion of an online social network was hardly novel. Friendster was thriving. A handful of rudimentary college-specific networks already existed. “Innovation often happens collaboratively,” says John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at HLS. “It’s very rarely a single person coming up with a single idea who makes a breakthrough. It’s not surprising at all that some people had similar ideas.”
One of those people was Aaron Greenspan, another Harvard student, who, six months before Facebook, had created a Harvard social network called houseSYSTEM. It featured a “Universal Face Book” that allowed students to upload photos and personal information. Zuckerberg, whom Greenspan had told about the site early on, was a user, and Greenspan has since accused him of poaching ideas, in particular features that allowed members to create event reminders, access course schedules, and buy and sell textbooks.
“I don’t know if Mark copied things intentionally or it’s just the most amazing coincidence of all time, but I know he’s dishonest,” Greenspan says. “I’ve seen him lie.”
But Greenspan also points out that many elements of social networks aren’t new. “Some of these concepts are generic and existed as far back as 1997,” he says. “That’s when I first got an invitation to a social network. I was in eighth grade.” Even Zuckerberg’s high school had an online facebook. Kris Tillery, one of Zuckerberg’s Exeter classmates, created an application that allowed students to upload profile information and perform searches; it all but replaced the school’s printed student handbook. Zuckerberg, Tillery says now, is “a smart and capable programmer and businessman, and generally a good guy.” Even if the Exeter directory inspired Zuckerberg, says Tillery, that wouldn’t explain Facebook’s success.
What can, in large part, is Zuckerberg. Tales of Zuckerberg forgoing food to program through the night are near legendary. He coded facemash in a two-day, half-drunk frenzy, according to his online journal. “I haven’t really eaten all day,” he wrote. “My diet and sleeping patterns really go to shit when I have a coding project ... or when I don’t.”
Around the time that the Ad Board punished Zuckerberg for facemash, a Crimson editorial explored the possibility of an online directory with stronger privacy controls. “Much of the trouble surrounding the facemash could have been eliminated if only the site had limited itself to students who voluntarily uploaded their own photos,” the Crimson editors argued. “A site that allows us to succumb to the guilty pleasure of judging our friends and enemies in an e-Darwinist free-for-all would be acceptable—and hilarious—so long as its targets all choose to opt themselves into the spotlight.”
This, Zuckerberg has said, was the real inspiration for Facebook. “I basically took that article ... and made a site with those exact privacy controls and that was Facebook,” Zuckerberg said in a deposition. Yet the Crimson had only suggested a site that ranked relative attractiveness.
So why did Zuckerberg bail on Harvard Connection? In court documents and press interviews, he usually cites the unwieldy source code he inherited from the site’s previous programmers. Zuckerberg has also said that he lost interest in Harvard Connection because it lacked a cohesive vision and was never intended to be more than a dating and professional site. “I’m still a little skeptical that we have enough functionality in the site to really draw the attention and gain the critical mass necessary to get a site like this to run,” he e-mailed Cameron Winklevoss at one point.
But it’s hard to imagine that Zuckerberg didn’t know that the site he was designing for himself was very much like the site he was supposed to be creating for the Harvard Connection team. The similarities between Facebook and the concept for Harvard Connect are abundant and obvious, and the plaintiffs have accused Zuckerberg of stealing several ideas, including: the concept of an online social network for the college community; registration with .edu e-mail addresses to encourage users to enter accurate information into their profiles; grouping users by schools, starting with Harvard and then moving on to the rest of the Ivy League and beyond, and allowing them to connect to other groups; letting users adjust privacy settings within their groups; allowing users to request connections with other users; enabling people to upload, post, and share photos, videos, and information and exchange goods such as books or personal items.
As evidence has trickled to light over the last three years, Zuckerberg’s story has changed in ways that contradict previous explanations. Immediately after Facebook launched, the plaintiffs sent Zuckerberg a cease-and-desist letter and filed a complaint with the Ad Board. The plaintiffs argued that Zuckerberg had violated Harvard’s honor code. Zuckerberg e-mailed a letter to the Ad Board presenting his version of events. Although the Ad Board chose not to pursue the matter, Zuckerberg’s letter, presented by the plaintiffs as evidence, raises questions about his veracity.
In his letter, Zuckerberg admits—contrary to what his attorneys would later claim—that the Harvard Connection team discussed payment with him. “[The plaintiffs] told me that if I wanted to get involved, they needed about 10 hours of programming done and there could be some pay in it for me,” Zuckerberg wrote. (In the same letter, he also asserted that he was working for free.) Although a discussion about payment could help establish an oral contract between the parties and bolster the plaintiffs’s complaint, it’s unlikely to make much of a difference in the case. “Oral contracts are worth the paper they’re written on,” Palfrey says. “But it’s enough of a case that they’ve been able to get themselves in front of a judge … You can have just enough to kick open the doors of justice.”
Zuckerberg also substantiated much of what the plaintiffs have said with respect to the Harvard Connection concept. He confirmed that it was divided into dating and connecting sections, and that users could upload images and personal information and search for other people based on interests, then contact them for dates or non-romantic reasons. Most revealing is what Zuckerberg said about the connecting side of Harvard Connection: “Instead of the information being based around dating, it had a professional focus, and instead of requesting dates from people, users would request connections. I never really understand [sic] what requesting a connection would do for a user …” That admission suggests that forming platonic connections on a website—for Facebook users, perhaps the site’s most central function—was not actually Zuckerberg’s idea nor intent when he launched his site. Then again, it’s also possible that he was simply misrepresenting the ambition of the Harvard Connection site.
The plaintiffs allege that Zuckerberg stalled Harvard Connection while working on Facebook to gain a first-mover advantage; Zuckerberg has denied the accusation. In the Ad Board letter, he says he began work on Facebook only after his final meeting with the plaintiffs on January 14, 2004.
“I let them know that I probably wouldn’t be able to devote the kind of time I would have liked to the site, and that they should get another developer on board,” he wrote. “After that meeting I began making thefacebook … ” Zuckerberg subsequently claimed that he coded the original Facebook site in just over a week, during exam period.
But court documents suggest that the claims Zuckerberg made to the Harvard Ad Board may be false. Zuckerberg registered the original Facebook website on January 11, and his lawyers have told the court that it was “on or about” this date that he started coding. On January 12, however—two days before meeting with the Harvard Connect group—Zuckerberg e-mailed Eduardo Saverin, saying that the site was almost complete and that they should discuss marketing strategies.
A week earlier, Zuckerberg had e-mailed Greenspan for legal advice about a new “web app.” When Greenspan inquired further, Zuckerberg became cryptic: “For now I’m trying to keep the project on the dl, so I’d rather not discuss the details,” he wrote.
Zuckerberg’s letter to the Ad Board suggests his frustration with the whole episode. “I try not to get involved with other students’ ventures since they are generally too time-consuming and don’t provide me with enough room to be creative and do my own thing,” Zuckerberg told the Ad Board. “I do, however, make an effort to use my skills to help out those who are trying to develop their own ideas for websites … Perhaps there was some confusion, and I can see why they might be upset that I released a successful website while theirs was still unfinished, but I definitely didn’t promise them anything … Frankly, I’m kind of appalled that they’re threatening me after the work I’ve done for them free of charge, but after dealing with a bunch of other groups with deep pockets and good legal connections including companies like Microsoft, I can’t say I’m surprised. I try to shrug it off as a minor annoyance that whenever I do something successful, every capitalist out there wants a piece of the action.”
As Facebook’s membership soared, Zuckerberg showed a gift for making sound decisions without overreaching. When the time was right, he created a “Groups” application that let users join or create groups and connect with people with similar interests. Facebook would eventually expand to high-school networks and added a photo application that let users upload pictures. By the summer of 2004, Facebook was growing so fast that Zuckerberg, who had just finished his sophomore year, headed to Palo Alto to search for investment capital and further develop the site. He took one bag of clothes. “I had a couple friends that were going to be out there for the summer who had internships,” he explained later, “I wanted to hang out with them.”
Zuckerberg enlisted several Harvard roommates and friends to help with Facebook. They rented a group house, planted tiki torches, and ran a zip-line from the roof. They also coded day and night. By the end of the summer, 250,000 people had signed up for Facebook. Zuckerberg decided to stay in California.
That summer, he also befriended Sean Parker, one of the founders of Napster. Parker advised Zuckerberg on how to set up a company and opened donor doors for him in Silicon Valley. In return, Zuckerberg made him company president. Zuckerberg would later force his friend to step down after Parker was arrested for cocaine possession, according to a deposition by Zuckerberg. (Parker has denied cocaine-related allegations.) But the more-seasoned tech entepreneur helped bring in millions of dollars of venture capital.
Harvard Connection, however, remained a Dickensian contrast in fortune. Since the launch of Facebook, the trio of seniors had been scrambling to make up lost ground. “Every second ticking was … a second lost,” Tyler Winklevoss said.
Zuckerberg had turned over none of the code he claimed to have finished for Harvard Connection, so the plaintiffs contracted two Web development firms to finish their site. In May 2004, they launched their new site, renamed ConnectU, and hoped for the best. The best wasn’t very good; by then, Facebook was steamrolling everything in its path, and today, ConnectU is all but moribund. Narendra turned his attention to Wall Street, landing a job at Credit Suisse. But the Winklevoss twins kept at it. Last year, the twins testified that they had pumped some $800,000 into ConnectU. Furious at Zuckerberg, the Winklevosses even OK’d programs to “scrape” user information off Facebook, then e-mail invites to those users to join ConnectU. When Zuckerberg discovered the alleged subterfuge, he filed a lawsuit accusing ConnectU of hacking into Facebook and spamming his customer base. That litigation is ongoing.
Zuckerberg was already embroiled in still another lawsuit, filed five months earlier, this one against Eduardo Saverin. Zuckerberg claims that Saverin tried to hijack the company by freezing its bank account when Facebook desperately needed cash in its formative months. Zuckerberg used money his parents had saved for his college tuition to keep the company afloat. Saverin, who originally owned a third of Facebook, has counter-sued. He claims that the approximately $20,000 involved was his money—Facebook seed capital that Zuckerberg promised to match and never did. Instead, Saverin says, Zuckerberg used the money to cover personal expenses. Then, when Zuckerberg incorporated Facebook and became sole director, he cut Saverin out of the power structure of the company and watered down his shares.
By chance, Saverin ran into Cameron Winklevoss in a Manhattan bar in the summer of 2004. Over the din of music and loud voices, Saverin apologized for Zuckerberg’s behavior, according to a deposition by Winklevoss.
“Sorry that he screwed you … Mark screwed [me] too,” Winklevoss recalled Saverin saying.
In September 2004, only a few weeks after that encounter, the ConnectU team filed a federal lawsuit against Zuckerberg and his early teammates, including Saverin.
Lawyers for ConnectU have successfully pushed to recover Zuckerberg’s original source code for Facebook, arguing that it will show him guilty of copyright infringement. Zuckerberg says that the code will absolve him of wrongdoing. “We know that we didn’t take anything from them,” he told the New Yorker last year. “There is really good documentation of this: our code base versus theirs. At some point, that will come out in court.”
But it has not come out in court. Zuckerberg has been on notice since September 2004 to preserve information relevant to the case, but for some time Facebook claimed they couldn’t produce a shred of source code from when Zuckerberg first began working for Harvard Connection, the original Facebook code, or even the Facebook code in October 2004, one month after the original suit was filed. Zuckerberg’s lawyers have held that nearly all the early Facebook code has disappeared, wiped from outside servers long ago or lost on missing or corrupted hard drives.
“Mr. Zuckerberg should have known better than to fail to back up the work that he allegedly performed on the Harvard Connection code,” ConnectU attorneys have argued. “It is fishy indeed, if not impossible, that the Harvard Connection code, the pre-launch thefacebook.com code, and the facemash code supposedly do not exist from launch until October 2004 …”
What evidence Facebook has turned over to ConnectU—and some memory devices once thought lost have recently surfaced—may be all that exists. The court has ruled that outside consultants can image and analyze the devices for code or other intellectual property. Their findings could be decisive.
“Computer forensics is an extraordinary science,” Palfrey says. “If they go through a legitimate ... process, you’ll get an answer.”
Whatever the legal outcome, we will probably never know what really happened in the Harvard dorms four years ago. And as Facebook mushrooms into one of the biggest databases of personal information in the world, the controversy over the site’s origins will almost certainly be overshadowed by a battle over how it protects users’ privacy. Until a better social network comes along, however, people are logging on to Facebook by the millions. It’s safe to say that Zuckerberg capitalized on the right idea at the right time. The question remains: Whose idea was it?