Facebook gave favoured companies access to data, seized documents reveal
A UK parliamentary committee has published internal Facebook documents, including e-mails sent between Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, and other senior executives.
The 223 pages of communication, covering the period between 2012 to 2015, show how the social media company debated generating revenue by selling access to data, tracked and fended off rivals, and braced itself for negative publicity as it moved to capture more user data.
The documents were seized by UK authorities just over a week ago when Ted Kramer, founder of US software firm Six4Three, was in London. Kramer has been in a legal battle with Facebook since 2015 over developer access to user data.
They renew the focus on apps hosted on Facebook’s platform and their access to friends’ data, a key issue in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year.
They reveal that Facebook ‘whitelisted’ certain companies, including Airbnb, Netflix, and dating app firm Badoo, meaning that they still had full access to users’ friends’ data after platform changes in 2015 limited it for others.
“It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not,” said Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
Facebook also aggressively tried to shut down the competition; when Twitter launched the six-second-video-clip platform Vine, Zuckerberg approved revoking its access to Facebook’s API.
“We’ve prepared reactive PR,” a senior executive wrote, to which Zuckerberg replied, “Yup, go for it.”
Friends’ data has been a big source of income for Facebook, thanks to growing revenues from app developers. The idea of tying access to this data to the developer’s relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature throughout the documents.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and also its chairman, wanted “full reciprocity” between the company and app developers, the implication being: ‘You share all your data on users with us, and we’ll share all of ours with you’.
Facebook found ways to access users’ call history without alerting them, in order to make ‘People You May Know’ suggestions and tweak news-feed rankings. The documents indicate that the comopany planned to make it as hard as possible for users to know that this was happening.
It used Onavo, an Israeli analytics company it bought in 2013, to check customers’ usage of mobile apps without their knowledge. They used this to find out how many people had downloaded apps and how often they used them and the information was used to identify out potential companies to acquire.