Facebook offered preferential access to data, says parliamentary report – Financial Times

British MPs have accused Facebook of striking secret deals to give developers access to user data, after seizing internal emails that show a pattern of disregarding privacy and the risks of data leaks.

Facebook signed deals that gave preferential access to certain developers, even after restricting data sharing practices in 2015, according to documents published on Wednesday after British MPs used parliamentary powers to bypass a US court ruling.

The digital, culture, media and sport select committee published private conversations between top Facebook executives, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, which it seized from a developer that is suing the social network in California.

The committee said Facebook tried to make it “as hard as possible” for users to understand that records of their calls and texts would be collected as part of an Android mobile system update. 

In one email, a privacy manager pushed back on a request from Mr Zuckerberg that could have led to users making more of their private information public.

Other emails appear to show tensions between Facebook’s growth team and others at the company, with one engineer writing that trying to obtain SMS and call log data from Android phones is a “pretty high risk thing to do from a PR perspective, but it appears the growth team will charge ahead and do it”. 

The emails, dating as far back as 2012, reveal Facebook also held preferential “whitelisting agreements” — where companies received greater access to data — with a number of firms, including Netflix and Airbnb. 

Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who chairs the DCMS select committee, said there was “considerable public interest” in publishing the documents.

“They 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,” he said. 

Facebook insists it does not sell user data, but the emails show that as the company tried to figure out how to make money from its platform, it considered ways of charging developers for access through payments in kind, such as showing Facebook ads in the developers’ apps.

The emails also indicate that Mr Zuckerberg underestimated how data leaks could damage developers.

Three years before Cambridge Analytica was passed the data of up to 87m Facebook users that had been harvested by another developer, Mr Zuckerberg wrote to former Facebook employee Sam Lessin: “I’m generally sceptical that there is as much data leak strategic risk as you think. I agree there is clear risk on the advertiser side, but I haven’t figured out how that connects to the rest of the platform.

“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.

The emails also show how Facebook cut off access to data for competitors, used its acquisition of Onavo, an Israeli analytics company, to gather data on rivals’ success, and warned friends of Mr Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, when they were making changes to the developer platform. 

The documents were seized from app developer Six4Three, which has filed a lawsuit against the social media giant in California. Six4Three claims it was unfairly denied access to data as it tried to launch an app called Pikinis, which let users filter accounts to find people in bikinis. 

The UK parliament seized the documents last week, after Mr Collins invoked a rare parliamentary mechanism authorising their confiscation. 

Six4Three founder Ted Kramer was confronted by the serjeant-at-arms— an officer responsible for security at the House of Commons — at a London hotel before being escorted to parliament. 

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Mr Zuckerberg said he stood by the company’s decision to restrict how data flowed to advertisers in 2015.

“We’re confident this change was the right thing to do and that we’ll win these lawsuits,” he said. “When Facebook discussed charging developers, it was for a service, like those sold by other platforms including Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, not for buying user data . . . We’ve never sold anyone’s data.”

A Facebook spokesperson said: “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. 

“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 of 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.”

Additional reporting by Richard Waters in San Francisco

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