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.”

In another email from January 2013, Zuckerberg suggested requiring developers to pay $0.10 per user every year if developers wanted to read Facebook data, including friends lists. Logging in via Facebook or pushing content to Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote, should remain free.

In 2009, Zuckerberg told the BBC in an interview that “of course” Facebook wouldn’t sell user information, and that information on Facebook belonged to its users, and that Facebook would not share information “except for with the people they’ve asked for it to be shared.”

In November 2012, Zuckerberg explained his thinking behind a Facebook push to require app developers to encourage its users to share information back onto the platform, and the consideration of charging developers for access to Facebook’s API, the set of programming tools that let developers build apps that will work with Facebook.

“We’re trying to enable people to share everything they want, and to do it on Facebook,” Zuckerberg wrote in an email in November 2012. “Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and to make that app social by having Facebook plug into it. 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.”

“What I’m assuming we’ll do here,” he continued, “is have a few basic thresholds of API usage and once you pass a threshold you either need to pay us some fixed amount to get to the next threshold or you get rate limited at the lower threshold.”

Facebook did not ultimately end up charging app developers for access to user data, as it has repeatedly emphasized.

The emails appear to provide a number of examples in which Facebook extended access to certain types of data to companies in one-off arrangements made on individual bases. Collins alleged that the emails show that Facebook entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies to give them additional access to data points that would not be available to other developers following a change to Facebook’s policies.

“It’s not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not,” Collins wrote in a summary of what he said were the key issues.

That sharing was, Collins alleged, extended to companies like Airbnb, Lyft, Netflix and dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Badoo.

That generosity didn’t extend to Facebook’s competitors. In an email from January 2013, Facebook executive Justin Osofsky, who now serves as Facebook’s vice president of global operations, said he intended to shut down Facebook data access to the video app Vine the same day that the now-defunct app launched.

“Twitter launched Vine today which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video,” Osofsky wrote, adding that the Vine app let users find new friends through Facebook. “…Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today.”

Zuckerberg’s response: “Yup, go for it.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.