The Ethics of The Social Network

In analyzing the ethics of David Fincher’s The Social Network, one must first start at the creation of the film, which is a film adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires. Before the film’s release, controversy surrounding the film as Facebook CEO first refused to see the film, then denied claims made by the film. Questions then followed the film leaving audiences confused about the factuality of Fincher’s film.

Social_network_film_posterInside the world of writer Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, the first ethical dilemma approached in the film is that of computer hacking. After his break-up with Erika Albright, Mark illegally hacked into Harvard’s social networking database and created a website comparing female students “based on their hotness”. While his actions were against school policy and he was charged with 6-month academic probation, Mark had abused students’ online privacy and disintegrated the already slim trust between other students and himself.

The overarching ethical issue surrounding The Social Network is the idea of intellectual property and the ownership of the original idea of Facebook. According to the “Winklevii”, the idea for “The Facebook” was stolen by Mark Zuckerberg while he was working on the Winklevoss’s own social networking site, Harvard Connection. Before delving into the ethics of intellectual property, one must first establish a definition of intellectual property. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), intellectual property “refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.” The idea for Facebook, which is what Mark is being sued for stealing, is just that, an idea. It is not copyrighted material or a trademarked product. The philosophical term for the protection of idea is referred to as the “law of ideas”, where individuals can protect ideas as personal property. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the law of ideas is typically applied in cases where “individuals produce ideas and submit them to corporations expecting to be compensated. But when ideas are used (by anyone) without authorization, compensation may be required.

The question then becomes, is Harvard Connection the same as Facebook, and did the Winklevoss’s “submit” their idea to Mark Zuckerberg? The Winklevoss’s lawyers attest to the idea that Mark stole the idea after the Winklevoss’s employed him to work on Harvard Connection. The lawyers lay out email exchanges between the two parties demonstrating Mark claiming to be working on Harvard Connection, while the film shows him working on “The Facebook” simultaneously. Gage, the legal representation of the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra, reads aloud the email exchange, keying on the final email from, in which was the first time he expressed any concern about “the sites functionality”. Days later, Mark and Eduardo Saverin launch thefacebook.com. According to Gage, Mark was leading his clients on to “give himself a 42-day head start”.

The ethical divide is not only between Mark and the Winklevoss twins, but between the Winklevoss twins themselves. After the launch of TheFacebook, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss disagreed on the correct approach against Mr. Zuckerberg. Cameron’s belief was that “we are gentlemen of Harvard” and it was not moral of them accuse Mark of stealing their idea without factual evidence. Divya, however, would prefer them to hire the Soprano’s “and beat the shit out of him with a hammer.” Tyler disagrees with both, saying that is not necessary, “I’m 6’5 220 and there’s two of me.” Both brothers were brought up in the same upper class home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where they both attended the prestigious Brunswick School before attending Harvard. However, throughout the film, we see the character divide between Cameron and Tyler, where Tyler is more aggressive and emotionally, and Cameron is more calm and cerebral. We see the extreme of this with their approach to Mark Zuckerberg, where Tyler takes a more personal choice and responds with emotion, and Cameron is attempting to make the best possible business decision.

Mark is also no stranger to life in the 1%. Growing up in Westchester County outside of New York City, and attended the Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. But we see ethical difference between Mark and the Winklevoss’s in Mark’s friendship with Sean Parker. Mark admired Parker, who founded Napster at 19 and changed “the music industry forever and for always.” Sean and Mark come from the same technological generation of early Internet and the dot com boom. The both approach the Internet as this free world where law does not apply. But Napster was also illegal, and so was Mark’s FaceSmash stunt, as Mark puts Facebook on ethically questionable ground by involving Sean Parker in the project. Sean Parker is no longer 19 and Mark is no longer in his dorm room at Kirkland. Billion dollar corporations cannot operate with the “free Internet perspective”; Facebook became the property of not only Mark, but also the users and the new investors.

During a deposition scene, Gage asked Mark if he had his full attention. Mark denied, saying that he the minimum amount, and that his attention was back at the offices of Facebook doing things that his clients (The Winklevoss’s) were not intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Here is where Fincher is making a comment on the idea of intellectual property of Facebook. Even if Mark did steal the idea, and even if settled with the Winklevoss’s, the idea became Mark’s. As time passed, Mark was the CEO and Mark brought the company to heights unachievable by the Winklevi. Earlier in the scene, Divya says to Mark “I can’t wait to stand over you and watch you write us a check.” Mark replies, “I know,” demonstrating the different motivating factors between Mark and the Winklevoss’s. Mark is not motivated by money, the Internet is a part of Mark as a person, and that is what motivates him, unlike the Winklevii, who are motivated by the economic success of Facebook.

Moore, A. (2011, March 8). Intellectual Property. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intellectual-property/#ProMerIde

World Intellectual Property Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/

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