Leaked emails have embroiled Facebook in a new scandal with the suggestion the social networking giant has made a habit of dirty tricks and anticompetitive practices.
These new problems come as the company is still reeling from last month’s revelations of underhanded lobbying, smear campaigns and alleged anti-semitism.
In the latest scandal internal company emails released by the UK Parliament show Facebook;
- considered selling access to user data to developers,
- restricted competitors’ API access
- secretly accessed users’ call logs and
- admissions by company chief Mark Zuckerberg that Facebook’s interests can conflict with broader society.
The emails were originally obtained by Facebook app developer Six4Three, currently engaged in a legal stoush with Facebook over the developer’s bikini photo app.
Facebook had fought to have the emails suppressed and, in response to the revelations, described them as being “cherrypicked” by Six4Three for the lawsuit and a misrepresenttion.
The hundreds of emails and documents include correspondence form senior Facebook executives mostly between 2012 and 2015 and largely pertain to how Facebook allows third party apps to access user data.
The emails suggest a range of questionable practices including some in direct contradiction of Facebook’s policy on selling data.
In 2012, Facebook staff discussed trading user data for revenue. The discussions involved company CEO Mark Zuckerberg who appears to value users and their data at 10 cents each.
In considering a new business model for Facebook app developers Zuckerberg wrote, “A basic model could be: Login with Facebook is always free … Pushing content to Facebook is always free … Reading anything, including friends, costs a lot of money. Perhaps on the order of $US0.10/user each year.”
Today, Facebook and Zuckerberg defended the consideration, suggesting it was viable at the time when they were transitioning from desktop to mobile and ad placement was restricted on mobiles because of Apple’s policy of not letting ads run in applications.
“Like any organisation, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post.
“Other ideas we considered but decided against included charging developers for usage of our platform, similar to how developers pay to use Amazon AWS or Google Cloud. To be clear, that’s different from selling people’s data. We’ve never sold anyone’s data.”
Facebook eventually decided against the practice but the emails have also revealed senior Facebook staff engaged in other questionable activity.
Zuckerberg also personally oversaw a list of “strategic competitors” who had their data access restricted “much more strongly”, according to the emails. Any increase in data access to the strategic competitors, presumably the likes of Google and Twitter, required personal sign off from Zuckerberg or “Mark level” management.
Facebook responded to the revelations by suggesting it was common practice across the tech sector.
“At that time we made the decision to restrict apps built on top of our platform that replicated our core functionality. These kind of restrictions are common across the tech industry with different platforms having their own variant including YouTube, Twitter, Snap and Apple.”
They also announced the policy will be scrapped.
When rival social media platform Twitter launched its video app Vine in 2013 Facebook immediately shut down its access to Facebook’s find a friend API in an apparent bid to stymie the competitor’s growth.
Facebook VP Justin Osofsky proposed shutting down the new app’s API access directly to Zuckerberg including letting him know “reactive PR” had been prepared for anticipated blowback.
“Yup, go for it,” Zuckerberg responded. Vine shut down early last year.
Call logs captured
The email tranche also shows in 2015 Facebook began “continuously uploading” call and text logs from Android phones to feed features like people you may know.
“This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it,” Facebook product manager Michael Lebeau is quoted as saying in one document.
There is also an apparent discussion of circumventing dialogue boxes asking for user permission.
Facebook maintains the “feature” is opt-in and they have always sought permission from users. An unattributed company blog post said the permission discussion referred to how permission would be collected and not about avoiding collecting it.
In a telling revelation, Zuckerberg — the man who has gone to pains to defend Facebook as “connecting the world” — conceded what is in his company’s best interests will conflict with its billions of users’ interests.
While considering third-party apps’ access to the platform, Zuckerberg discussed ways to ensure people shared content to Facebook rather than other platforms, despite it not being the best outcome for people.
“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.