Facebook: Users’s data offered to Netflix and Airbnb, documents show

Emails show Mark Zuckerberg signed off controversial policies and discussed ways to cash in on data

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 05 December 2018 16:55 GMT
European Parliament attempts to grill Mark Zuckerberg but ends in angry scenes

Facebook offered companies, including Netflix and Airbnb, access to data about users’ friends that it did not make available to other apps, according to documents released by parliament.

The 223 pages released yesterday were internal communications from 2012 to 2015 between company leaders, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, shedding light on allegations that Facebook has engaged in anti-competitive behaviour.

The documents show that Facebook tracked growth of competitors and denied them access to key data. Zuckerberg agreed to senior executive Justin Osofsky’s request in 2013 to stop giving friends’ list access to Vine on the day that social media rival Twitter launched the video-sharing service. “We’ve prepared reactive PR,” Mr Osofsky wrote, to which Mr Zuckerberg replied: “Yup, go for it.”

The documents also raised questions about Facebook’s transparency. An exchange from 2015 shows Facebook leaders discussing how to begin collecting call logs from Android users’ smartphones without subjecting them to “scary” permissions screens.

In a summary of the 250-page cache, which includes internal emails involving Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and other members of staff, Damian Collins MP, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, highlighted a number of “key issues”.

He claimed the documents show Facebook chose to “whitelist” selected companies, allowing them to maintain “full access” to the data of a user’s Facebook friends even after the company announced changes in 2015 to end such access.

Mr Collins suggested the cache also showed Facebook regularly discussed the value of data on the platform, and said: “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.”

He added that the files also showed Facebook knew an update to its Android mobile app that would allow it to collect user call logs would be controversial and “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 summary also accused Facebook of using analytics app Onavo to “conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge”. The summary said the site used this data to assess how often people use these apps and then to decide on which companies to acquire and which to treat as a threat.

The internal workings of Facebook were revealed after parliament released the internal documents from the controversial company. The files show a range of discussions from inside Facebook, including suggestions that it could one day charge developers for access to its data about users.

“There’s a big question on where we get the revenue from,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in one email. “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 documents were released as the company is hit by a range of scandals about how Facebook uses the vast array of personal data it collects about its users.

The documents were released by parliament’s media committee, which is running an investigation into those scandals and Facebook more generally, and are files seized from a now-defunct swimsuit photo searching app as part of that investigation. They show that Facebook deeply considered the issues that would go on to produce a range of scandals, including the Cambridge Analytica affair.

The committee received the documents from app developer Six4Three, which had acquired the files dating from 2013-2014, as part of a US lawsuit against the social media giant. The app developer is suing Facebook over a change to the social network’s privacy policies in 2015 that led Six4Three to shut down its app, Pikinis, which let users find photos of their friends in bathing suits by searching their friends list.

US senator Richard Blumenthal described the documents as part of “mounting evidence that Facebook acted chaotically, recklessly and lawlessly by granting access to private consumer data for financial gain”.

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Facebook responded quickly, saying the release was misleading. “The documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context,” the statement 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.”

The firm said it would relax one “out of date” policy that restricted competitors’ use of its data. Previously, “Mark level signoff” would have been required for an exemption to the policy, according to one document, referring to Mr Zuckerberg.

Additional reporting by agencies

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