Internal Facebook emails show it gave special access to user data to some companies

Social media network Facebook gave some companies such as Netflix special access to users’ data despite cutting off such access to developers in 2014 and 2015, suggest a huge set of internal emails and other documents released by the British Parliament on Wednesday.

The documents “raise important questions about how Facebook treats users’ data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market”, British MP Damian Collins said on Twitter after releasing the files. “We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents. We need a more public debate about the rights of social media users and the smaller businesses who are required to work with the tech giants. I hope that our committee investigation can stand up for them.”

The documents, over 250 pages, include emails between Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and senior employees. UK’s House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee obtained these documents in late November from an American software firm, Six4Three, according to The Guardian. The software firm’s legal team had received them during the “discovery” portion of its lawsuit against Facebook. The emails do not offer any context about the discussions and the decisions that took place but raise questions about the social media giant’s transparency and its anti-competitive behaviour.

In a note, Collins summarised and highlighted key issues about the documents.

Facebook clearly entered into “whitelisting agreements” with certain companies, he said. This meant that the platform continued to give full access to some companies such as Netflix, AirBnB, Badoo and Lyft even after its policy changed in 2014 and 2015. “It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not,” Collins wrote.

Facebook discusses often about increasing revenues from major app developers by linking access to data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook. “Reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions,” he added.

Collins also wrote: “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 as possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.”

The social media firm used Italian analytics firm Onavo to conduct “global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge”. They used this data to assess how many people had downloaded apps and how often they used them. “This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat,” he wrote. “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.”

Documents misleading, claims Facebook

In response, Facebook said the documents were “misleading” in their current manner and needed more context. “As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for this baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context,” Facebook’s Director of Developer Platforms and Programs, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, told The Guardian.

“That said, we stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers,” Papamiltiadis added. “Any short-term extensions granted during this platform transition were to prevent the changes from breaking user experience. To be clear, Facebook has never sold anyone’s data. Our APIs have always been free of charge and we have never required developers to pay for using them, either directly or by buying advertising.”

Zuckerberg also put out a response to the emails.