Facebook gave Netflix and Airbnb preferential access to data, documents reveal
British MP alleges company blocked competing apps from accessing users' data
Facebook gave some companies, including Netflix and Airbnb, preferential access to user data in 2015 as it limited services for most others, according to company emails and presentations released by a British lawmaker.
The 223 pages of communication from 2012 to 2015 between high-level Facebook employees, including founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, show how the social media company debated generating revenue by selling access to data, tracked and fended off rivals and braced for potential blowback as it moved to capture more user data.
Damian Collins, a Conservative member of British Parliament, made the documents public on Wednesday after demanding them last month under threat of sanction from Six4Three. The defunct app developer obtained them as part of its ongoing lawsuit in California state court alleging that Facebook violated promises to developers.
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.<a href="https://t.co/GRtQ5oMdvn">https://t.co/GRtQ5oMdvn</a>—@DamianCollins
"Facebook [has] clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data," the Parliament committee said in a statement preceding the emails.
"It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not."
In 2014, the company identified about 100 apps as being either "Mark's friends" or "Sheryl's friends" and also tracked how many apps were spending money on Facebook ads, according to the documents, referring to Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
The insight into the thinking of Facebook executives over that period could invite new regulatory scrutiny into its business practices.
Facebook said it stood by its deliberations and decisions, but noted that it would relax one "out-of-date" policy that restricted competitors' use of its data.
"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 company said in a statement
Though filed under seal and redacted in the lawsuit, Collins said the material needed to be made public because "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."
Data denied to competing apps: MP
Collins has been among leaders of a British inquiry into fake news on social media, one of the many issues that has brought Facebook into the crosshairs of governments in several countries. Data breaches, allegations of political bias by Facebook in content recommendations and lobbying tactics have also drawn questions from lawmakers.
Dating app Badoo and Lyft were among the other companies "whitelisted" for access to data about users' friends, the documents showed.
Collins also alleged that Facebook took aggressive positions against competitor apps by denying them access to any user data.
The summary of the committee's key issues pertaining to the documents said the documents also show Facebook knew that an update to its Android mobile app phone system — which enabled the Facebook app to collect user call logs — 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 summary said.
The documents show an exchange between Zuckerberg and senior executive Justin Osofsky in 2013, in which they decided to stop giving friends' data access to Vine on the day that social media rival Twitter launched the video-sharing service.
"We've prepared reactive PR," Osofsky wrote, to which Zuckerberg replied, "Yup, go for it."
With files from The Associated Press