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Facebook Wielded Access to User Data as a Competitive Weapon, Documents Reveal

Facebook’s aggressive business practices are again in the spotlight, after a massive batch of documents released by a U.K. parliamentary committee showed how Facebook has used access to user data to reward friendly partners and punish rivals.

The 250-page report, which includes numerous internal company emails, detail how Facebook granted favored partners — including Netflix — “whitelist” access to user info, while it routinely blocked companies it viewed as competitors from accessing its data.

The documents also reveal that Facebook considered charging developers to access its platform, as well as restricting user-data access only to developers that bought a minimum amount of advertising. In addition, per the documents, one of Facebook’s developers admitted that its use of Android apps to collect users’ call and text histories was a “high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective” and that engineers discussed ways to use Android to automatically track user data without their explicit opt-in.

The release of the documents come after a series of damaging information about Facebook’s practices has streamed out over the course of 2018. Most recently, the New York Times last month published a report revealing how Facebook stalled in response to various scandals and lashed out against competitors and critics, an effort that included enlisting a consulting firm to push reporters to cover billionaire George Soros’ ties to an anti-Facebook group.

Facebook, in response to the release of the documents, said they were “cherry-picked” and lacked context. “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,” the company said in a statement.

British lawmaker Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, released the documents on Wednesday. Those came from a lawsuit that bikini-picture app developer Six4Three filed against Facebook in 2015, alleging Facebook’s move to block apps from accessing info on users’ friends represented fraud. Collins last month forced the founder of Six4Three to turn over the documents, which had been under seal.

“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,” Collins wrote in a summary.

Facebook said it stands by changes it made in 2014 and 2015 to block users from sharing their friends’ information with app developers. Those were changes it made after a vast trove of info was illicitly shared with political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which came to light earlier earlier this year and led to CEO Mark Zuckerberg being hauled before congressional hearings.

Zuckerberg, in a response he posted on Facebook after the documents were released, said the change to limit data access to third-party developers was to counter “shady apps that abused people’s data.” “This was an important change to protect our community, and it achieved its goal,” he wrote.

The document cache, which spans a time period of roughly 2012-15, revealed that Facebook execs — including Zuckerberg — had multiple discussions about potentially charging developers to use the platform. One company executive suggested the possibility of limiting access to user data only to companies that spent at least $250,000 in mobile ads annually.

In Zuckerberg’s response Wednesday, he said that after those discussions, “Ultimately, we decided on a model where we continued to provide the developer platform for free and developers could choose to buy ads if they wanted.” Other models Facebook considered adopting but decided against included charging developers for usage of the platform, “similar to how developers pay to use Amazon AWS or Google Cloud,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Meanwhile, Facebook also used access to data as a punitive measure, according to the documents. According to a 2013 email exchange, Zuckerberg personally approved the blocking of Twitter’s Vine video app from being able to find friends on Facebook using its ostensibly open API.

“Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down [Vine’s] friends API access today,” Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s VP of global operations and media partnerships, wrote in a January 2013 email the day Vine launched. Zuckerberg replied, “Yup, go for it.”

On Tuesday, prior to the document release in the U.K., Facebook dropped its policy that restricted apps built on its platform that “replicated our core functionality.” While Facebook maintained that “these kind of restrictions are common across the tech industry,” citing YouTube, Twitter, Snap and Apple, it said it was eliminating the “out-of-date policy so that our platform remains as open as possible.”

Facebook critics alleged that its move to block rivals from the friends API represent violations of U.S. antitrust laws. “These internal Facebook documents are a smoking gun that executives — including Zuckerberg — engaged in illegal and anticompetitive actions to grow and protect Facebook’s monopoly power,” Sarah Miller, co-chair of the Freedom From Facebook coalition, said in a statement.

One of Freedom From Facebook’s founding organizations is Open Markets Institute, whose backers include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg personally directed employees to look into Soros’ finances, as the Times first reported last week.

On Wednesday, Facebook board (which includes Sandberg and Zuckerberg) said in a letter to the head of Open Society that it was “entirely appropriate” for Sandberg to inquire about whether Soros had shorted Facebook’s stock after he had publicly called the company a “menace,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Sandberg has maintained she didn’t know Facebook had hired Definers, the firm that pushed the narrative about Soros’ ties to Freedom From Facebook; in a note to employees, the exec also said, “The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.”

Regarding the use of “whitelists” to allow partners including Netflix, Airbnb and Lyft to access data on users’ friends lists, Facebook said, “In some situations, when necessary, we allowed developers to access a list of the users’ friends. This was not friends’ private information but a list of your friends (name and profile pic).” The company also said whitelists are “common practice when testing new features and functionality with a limited set of partners before rolling out the feature more broadly (aka beta testing).”

Facebook maintained that the call-and-text messaging tracking feature in Facebook Lite and Messenger on Android devices was deployed on an opt-in basis. “We use this information to do things like make better suggestions for people to call in Messenger and rank contact lists in Messenger and Facebook Lite,” the company said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that one of Freedom From Facebook’s founding organizations is George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. In fact, Freedom From Facebook members include Open Markets Institute, whose backers include Open Society Foundations. An Open Society Foundations spokeswoman said none of the organization’s funding to Open Markets “is used for any of the work” on Facebook lobbying efforts.

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