Facebook's newly released internal emails showcase freewheeling approach to user data
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives communicated about ways to sell access to the company's vast trove of data about people that showed preferential treatment for some apps while shutting out others, according to internal emails made public by the U.K. Parliament and cited by multiple news organizations. The 250 pages of documents were published as part of an investigation into Facebook’s data-sharing, Adweek reported. App developer Six4Three obtained the documents as part of a lawsuit against Facebook that alleges the social network engaged in anti-competitive business practices. A California judge had ordered that the documents remain sealed, but a Six4Three developer delivered them to British authorities this year.
- Zuckerberg reportedly appears to dismiss the risk of third-party app developers sharing data among themselves, a controversial issue at the heart of this year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. This is among the takeaways from a summary finding of the documents prepared by Damian Collins, chairman of the House of Commons Digital, Media, Culture and Sport Committee in the U.K. Parliament.
- Following the disclosure of the emails, Facebook posted a response on its corporate blog that defended its practice of "whitelisting," or approving access to data for some apps. "White lists are also common practice when testing new features and functionality with a limited set of partners before rolling out the feature more broadly (aka beta testing)," according to its statement.
The report from the U.K. Parliament reinforces criticism that the social networking giant hasn’t been forthcoming in explaining how it shared the personal data of millions of people with third parties. It also paints a picture of the company's internal maneuverings that are likely to interpreted by some as an indication that Facebook's true face isn't nearly as benevolent as the one the company has tried to put forward. Previous to the U.K. Parliament report, a growing sense of wariness toward Facebook was already being expressed by marketing industry executives following revelations about how executives like COO Cheryl Sandberg had worked behind the scenes to deflect blame from the company in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The emails show that Facebook let companies such as Netflix, Airbnb and Lyft gather information about Facebook users, a level of access denied to most other third-party developers. Facebook also decided to hamper Twitter’s Vine app, which let people share six-second videos with other smartphone users. Facebook had allowed Vine users to find other friends through Facebook, but decided to cut off Vine’s access to that source of data. "Yup, go for it," Zuckerberg said in an email approving the action against Vine.
The emails also show a discussion among Facebook executives about an update on Android that would let the company collect data on contacts, messages and call history. The executives tested how to force Android users to accept the update with a screen tap, but without showing them a separate permission dialog screen. That decision likely led to another embarrassing revelation about Facebook. Ars Technica this year published an investigation into how Facebook harvested personal data for years without obtaining informed consent from Android users.
The documents also show discussions among Facebook executives about ways to monetize its data. Zuckerberg wrote in an Oct. 7, 2012, email that he was considering charging app developers for access or insisting that they use the company’s products, buy ads or generate revenue for Facebook in other ways.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Facebook violated the terms of a 2012 consent decree in which it agreed to get user consent for collecting and sharing personal data. During the summer, the FTC, SEC and FBI joined a Department of Justice investigation into Facebook’s sharing of data about 71 million Americans with political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, The Washington Post reported. The Trump campaign hired the firm to target Facebook users with issue ads during the presidential election. Facebook last month said in a blog post that it blocked 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts for suspicious activity before the U.S. midterm elections.