The UK Parliament has published 250 pages of sensitive internal communications belonging to Facebook, which includes emails sent between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and senior staff members.
Parliament obtained these documents when it strong-armed Ted Kramer, CEO of Six4Three, into handing them over last week during a visit to the UK. The documents were part of an ongoing lawsuit between Six4Three and Facebook and had been ordered sealed by a California judge. As with seizing them in the first place, the Parliamentary committee's decision to publish the documents is unprecedented. The man responsible for both actions is Damien Collins, a Conservative MP and chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, who also chairs a Parliamentary inquiry into fake news:
I believe there is considerable public interest in releasing these 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.— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) 5 December 2018
Kramer is now in very hot water with the California judge for acceding to Parliament's demands: "What's happened here is unconscionable. Your conduct is not well taken by this court.” Mark Zuckerberg has posted a lengthy response in which he says the documents were part of an ongoing internal debate, and that being published out of context may "misrepresent our actions or motives.” He is also adamant that "we've never sold anyone's data.”
So what is in the documents?
The published documents, which date back to 2012, primarily relate to decisions made in advance a major platform upgrade (Platform 3.0) carried out between 2014 and 2015, and give an unparalleled window into Facebook’s decision-making process. Crucially, they appear to show that Facebook was not just aware of the privacy concerns which led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but that its staff consciously decided to prioritize profit over ethical concerns. Some of the most damaging documents show ...
Plans to allow Android devices to access users’ call history without their knowledge
Aware that this update was "a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” Facebook was careful to design it so that it could "upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all.” As Collins notes: "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.”
Facebook whitelisted companies, allowing them full access to users' friend data
This after it had announced changes to its platform saying that such access had been shut down. It is not clear why some companies were whitelisted while others were not, but the list of companies that were whitelisted contradicts thelist Facebook provided to the US House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year of companies that had access this data after May 2015. Again, it seems obtaining user-consent for allowing apps to collect this highly personal information was not a priority for Facebook.
Facebook imposed full reciprocity on app developers
In other words, app developers had to share all user data their apps collected with Facebook.
Facebook deliberately caused apps which it felt might compete with its own product to fail
Simply by refusing to share data with them, Facebook quashed potential rivals. In one case, Zuckerberg personally stamped his seal of approval on shutting down video hosting service Vine’s access to the Facebook api. Facebook earlier this week announced that will it freely allow developers to build features into their apps that compete with Facebook features. It is likely the move is motivated by a desire to deflect criticism on this point.
ProPrivacy.com’s expert opinion
Facebook has also come under fire for the lengthy discussions revealed in these documents about how to monetize users’ data. In this case, Zuckerberg’s riposte that these were just internal discussions where all ideas were open for debate seems fair: "Like any organization, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas.” Explaining away why it very deliberately tried to conceal what data it was collecting from its users, however, is not going to be so easy...
Image credit: By Ty Lim/Shutterstock.