Facebook struck deals over data and burnt rivals, show internal emails

Internal emails from Facebook, including some from CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have led British lawmakers to conclude that the social media giant had deals with third party apps that continued to allow access to personal data of users.

An influential UK parliamentary committee looking into fake news released on Wednesday a cache of internal documents between Zuckerberg and employees, highlighting what its chairman called “key issues”.

Several of the 250 pages of documents were marked “confidential” or “highly confidential” and related to issues such as charging developers for data access. Facebook had objected to their release. British MPs have been furious at Zuckerberg for not appearing before the panel.

Damian Collins, chair of the culture, media, sports and digital committee, wrote in an introductory note: “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.”

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He added, “It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.”

The documents suggest Facebook was aware that an update to its Android app that let it collect records of users’ calls and texts would be controversial. “To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard as possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features,” Collins wrote.

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The documents also suggest Facebook used data provided by Israeli analytics firm Onavo to determine which mobile apps were being downloaded and used by the public. It then used this knowledge to decide which apps to acquire or treat as a threat.

In an email, Zuckerberg wrote: “There’s a big question on where we get the revenue from. Do we make it easy for devs to use our payments/ad network but not require them? Do we require them? Do we just charge a rev share directly and let devs who use them get a credit against what they owe us? It’s not at all clear to me here that we have a model that will actually make us the revenue we want at scale.”

The committee received the documents from app developer Six4Three, which had acquired the files dating from 2013-14, as part of a US lawsuit against Facebook. The documents had earlier been sealed by a California court.

Six4Three is suing Facebook over a change to the platform’s privacy policies in 2015 that led the developer to shut down its app Pikinis, which lets users find photos of their friends in bathing suits.

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In response, Facebook said the documents had been presented in a “very misleading manner” and required additional context.

A spokeswoman said: “We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many 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.”

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