Internal Emails Shine Light On Facebook’s Approach to Sharing and Selling Data With Developers

British lawmakers released a trove of the company's internal communications

Facebook's internal communications reveal the company had conflicting policies about sharing data.

Facebook gave some advertisers and companies special access to data about Facebook users, made quick decisions about shutting down its competitors’ access to data and focused aggressively on making sure that data points procured within external Facebook apps made their way back to Facebook to increase the company’s value, a British lawmaker alleged today.

The allegations were based on trove of internal Facebook communications, some of which were reported on last week but much of which has not been made public until today. The more than 200 pages of documents, which are primarily emails exchanged among Facebook employees and executives as far back as 2012, provide a detailed look into internal conversations that Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, had when discussing the value of Facebook’s data, the terms with which Facebook considered making it available to developers and ways in which the platform curtailed or extended data use to developers.

Damian Collins, a member of Parliament and the chairman of the House of Commons Digital Media, Culture and Sport Committee, published the documents online today after saying less than a week ago that he intended to make them public. The documents are part of an ongoing lawsuit brought against Facebook by the app developer Six4Three, which has claimed Facebook engaged in anti-competitive business practices, but the emails remained under seal under orders of a California district judge. After a Six4Three developer delivered the documents to British lawmakers in late November, the release of the documents was all but inevitable.

In a summary of the documents, Collins alleged that the emails showed that Facebook gave app developers uneven access to data and that Facebook denied its competitors access to Facebook data. Collins also alleged that Facebook, in efforts to avoid bad press and criticism for a changes to its Android mobile app that gave Facebook access to call and text records, obfuscated the details of the update.

“As we’ve said many times, 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,” a Facebook rep said in an email. “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.”

Facebook’s data-sharing practices came under scrutiny earlier this year after the political firm Cambridge Analytica was found to have used data from about 87 million Facebook users in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cambridge Analytica was able to procure the data because app developers were, until 2015, given broad access to Facebook users’ and their friends’ data. Facebook has since curtailed that practice and placed some limits on the data shared with developers.

A major focus of the documents includes discussions among Facebook executives about the possibility of charging app developers for access to Facebook data. In an email dated Oct. 7, 2012, Zuckeberg wrote that he was considering charging app developers for access to the platform or requiring them to use Facebook products, buy Facebook ads or generate revenue for Facebook in other ways, which he wrote made it “more acceptable for us to charge them quite a bit more for using [the] platform.”

“The basic idea is that any other revenue you generate for us earns you a credit towards whatever fees you [owe] us for using [the] platform,” Zuckerberg wrote. “For most developers this would probably cover cost completely. So instead of every [developer] paying us directly, they’d just use our payments or ads products.”

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