Facebook Inc. wielded user data like a bargaining chip, providing access when that sharing might encourage people to spend more time on the social network — and imposing strict limits on partners in cases where it saw a potential competitive threat, emails show.
A trove of internal correspondence, published online Wednesday by U.K. lawmakers, provide insight into the ways Facebook executives including Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg treated information posted by users like a commodity that could be harnessed in service of business goals.
In early 2013, Twitter Inc. launched the Vine video-sharing service, which drew on a Facebook tool that let Vine users connect to their Facebook friends. Alerted to the possible competitive threat by an engineer who recommended cutting off Vine’s access to Facebook data, Zuckerberg replied succinctly: “Yup, go for it.”
In other cases Zuckerberg eloquently espoused the value of giving software developers more access to user data in hopes that it would result in applications that, in turn, would encourage people to do more on Facebook. “We’re trying to enable people to share everything they want, and to do it on Facebook,” Zuckerberg wrote in a November 2012 email. “Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and to make that app social by having Facebook plug into it. However, that may be good for the world but it’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network.”
The emails were released by a committee of U.K. lawmakers investigating social media’s role in the spread of fake news.
Damian Collins, head of the committee, alleged that Facebook shut off access to data required by competing apps and conducted global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers possibly without their knowledge. He also said that a change to Facebook’s Android app policy that resulted in call and message data being recorded was deliberately made difficult for users to know about. He explained his rationale for releasing the emails in a tweet:
The emails could increase scrutiny around whether Facebook is a monopoly — one of Facebook’s biggest current political risks. Damien Geradin, a Brussels-based lawyer at Euclid Law, said the refusal of access to Vine data could be seen as a “potential refusal to deal” with rivals, “but you would need to show that Facebook” is essential to users and it is “not clear it is.”
Facebook defended its practices in a statement. “Like any business, we had many internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform,” Facebook said in an emailed statement. “We’ve never sold people’s data.”
Collins said last week that he would release the emails and that he was free under U.K. law to do so. He’d obtained the documents after compelling the founder of U.S. software company Six4Three to hand them over during a business trip to London.
Six4Three’s founder, Ted Kramer, had obtained them as part of a legal discovery process in a U.S. lawsuit against Facebook that his company has brought against the social network in California.
Facebook touted itself as championing privacy four years ago when it decided to restrict outsider developers’ access to data about its users’ friends.
Zuckerberg in 2012 underestimated how much giving developers access to data could be a risk. “I think we leak info to developers, but I just can’t think if any instances where that data has leaked from developer to developer and caused a real issue for us,” he wrote in one of the emails. This year, he had to testify in front of U.S. Congress on one such instance of a developer sharing user data with Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy.
In one email, dated Feb. 4, 2015, a Facebook engineer said a feature of the Android Facebook app that would “continually upload” a user’s call and SMS history would be a “high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective.” A subsequent email suggests users wouldn’t need to be prompted to give permission for this feature to be activated.
Kramer was ordered by a judge on Friday to surrender his laptop to a forensic expert after admitting he turned over the documents to the British lawmakers, in violation of a U.S. court order.
“What has happened here is unconscionable,” California Superior Court Judge V. Raymond Swope said to Kramer and his attorneys during the hearing.
Facebook wants the laptop to be evaluated to determine what happened in the U.K., to what extent the court order was breached, and how much of its confidential information has been divulged to the committee.