UNDER THE HOOD

Facebook gave companies access to user data even after it said it wouldn’t

Zuck’s emails are included.
Zuck’s emails are included.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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A UK parliamentary committee released a cache of documents today (Dec. 5) that reveal that Facebook had considered charging developers for user data. They also show that the when considering giving access to data to partners, it favored some companies, while shutting off the access for competitors.

The documents, which include internal emails and memos between 2012 and 2015, were part of a lawsuit filed in California by Six4Three, an app developer who claimed that Facebook preferred certain companies over others. They were meant to be sealed, but the UK lawmakers seized them from the plaintiff while he was in London, as part of their inquiry into the company’s practices.

Facebook has been adamant that it doesn’t sell data. The emails show, however, that it definitely considered doing so. In emails in 2012, CEO Mark Zuckerberg pondered the question of where Facebook would get its revenue.

“I’ve been thinking about platform business model a lot this weekend…if we make it so [developers] can generate revenue for us in different ways, then it makes it more acceptable for us to charge them quite a bit more for using platform,” he says in one email. “I’m getting more on board with locking down some parts of platform, including friends data and potentially email addresses for mobile apps,” he says in another.

Zuckerberg adds that he’s not particularly worried about privacy:

“I’m generally sceptical (sic) that there is as much data leak strategic risk as you think. I agree there is clear risk on the advertiser side, but I haven’t figured out how that connects to the rest of the platform. I think we leak info to developers, but I just can’t think if any instances where that data has leaked from developer to developer and caused a real issue for us. Do you have examples of this?”

(One of which of course, would later be the Cambridge Analytica scandal.)

The documents also confirm earlier reporting that Facebook still let certain companies have access to user data, after it said it had it shut off access in 2015. These companies included Netflix, Lyft and Airbnb. “Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data” Damian Collins, chairman of the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, wrote in a note, attached in the document cache. “It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.”

Facebook said in a statement to Quartz that the documents for Six4Three’s “baseless” case are “only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context.” The company stands by its 2015 decision to stop sharing friends’ data with developers, a spokesperson added: ”Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.”

While giving preferential treatment to Silicon Valley companies that didn’t directly threaten their business, one email exchange shows how brutal the company was toward its competitors (“MZ” here is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg):

Facebook email 24 January 2013 Justin Osofsky –

‘Twitter launched Vine today which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video. As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision.

MZ – ‘Yup, go for it.’

Vine’s co-founder responded on Twitter:

Zuckerberg commented on the documents on his Facebook page, partially suggesting the company’s mobile business strategy was influenced by Apple (even though Google’s Android is far and away the most popular mobile operating system in the world):