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Facebook Considered Selling User Data Several Years Ago
When he testified at a Congressional hearing in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was adamant about how the social network handles its vast trove of user data: “I can’t be clearer on this topic: We don’t sell data,” he said.
However, a massive aggregation of internal correspondence published online by a U.K. parliamentary committee on Wednesday paints a murkier picture of how Facebook handled user data. While there’s nothing in the 250-pages of redacted emails that proves the social network ever actually sold user data, they show how the company entered into agreements with select companies to give them access to the data, while restricting access to other companies it viewed as being in competition with Facebook.
And then there’s this: Facebook actually mulled the possibility of charging companies for access to its user data, which means selling user data was in fact on the table as a revenue strategy at some point. The emails mostly cover the period between 2012 to 2015, which was “a period of explosive growth” for Facebook, as the New York Times notes.
“It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook,” TechCrunch‘s Natasha Lomas writes. “The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.”
Here is a summary of the committee’s findings:
1. White Lists 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. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.2.Value of Friends Data It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.3. Reciprocity Data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions about the launch of Platform 3.0.4. Android Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.5. Onavo Facebook used Onavo to conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge. They used this data to assess not just how many people had downloaded apps, but how often they used them. This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat.6. Targeting Competitor Apps The files show evidence of Facebook taking aggressive positions against apps, with the consequence that denying them access to data led to the failure of that business.
The internal documents were originally obtained by Ted Kramer, the co-founder of a defunct app called Six4Three, which sued Facebook over its “decision in 2014 to stop giving outside developers broad access to information about users’ friends,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Damian Collins, chairman of the House of Commons Digital, Media, Culture and Sport Committee of the U.K. parliament, then seized the documents from Kramer during a business trip to London last week.
The documents from the Six4Three case had been sealed by a California court, but Collins invoked parliamentary privilege in obtaining them – and then said he was permitted under U.K. law to publish them. Kramer was ordered by California Supreme Court Judge V. Raymond Swope on Friday to surrender his laptop to a forensic expert, with Judge Swope calling Kramer’s leak of the documents “unconscionable.”
Collins defended his reasons for seizing and publishing the internal documents on Twitter.
We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents.
— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) December 5, 2018
In a statement, Facebook said the documents seized from Six4Three” tells only one side of the story and omits important context.”
We still stand by the platform changes we made in 2014/2015, which prevented people from sharing their friends’ information with developers like the creators of Pikinis. The extensions we granted at that time were short term and only used to prevent people from losing access to specific functions as developers updated their apps. Pikinis didn’t receive an extension, and they went to court.
The documents were selectively leaked to publish some, but not all, of the internal discussions at Facebook at the time of our platform changes. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.
Photo: Getty iStock