Damian Collins MP has published a 250-page cache of internal Facebook communications, seized late last month, highlighting six key anti-competitive and anti-privacy issues - though Facebook itself claims the emails have been taken out of context.
Seized from app developer Six4Three by Damian Collins of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) following repeated refusals by Facebook company founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to submit to Parliamentary questioning over his company's complicity in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the emails are claimed to raise six key issues. Chief among these are Facebook's monetisation of user data, including 'linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook' and whitelisting agreements which permitted 'certain companies' to retain full access to friends data even after changes made to the platform in 2014 and 2015 should have restricted said access, alongside anti-competitive behaviours which include a deliberate attempt to kill off rival applications, including short video service Vine, by denying them access to data.
'Facebook have 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,' Collins' notes on the documents claim. 'It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not. It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.'
'Data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions about the launch of Platform 3.0. Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user, would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of [sic] possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app. Facebook used Onavo [a free VPN application] to conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge. They used this data to assess not just how many people had download ed apps, but how often they used them. This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat. The files show evidence of Facebook taking aggressive positions against apps, with the consequence that denying them access to data led to the failure of that business.'
Facebook, for its part, claims that Six4Three 'cherry-picked these documents from years ago as part of a lawsuit to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app's users. The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context,' the company's statement reads. In its rebuttal, the company defends its whitelisting practices, claims that its provision of the free developer platform demonstrates it did not go ahead with plans to require that developers buy advertising, points to the existence of a specific reciprocity clause in its 2013 Platform Policies document, stated that call and text messaging logs were only exfiltrated from Android users if they opted in to the service, claims that it has 'always been clear when people download Onavo about the information that is collected and how it is used,' but admits that the app restrictions that led to the demise of Vine and other services is 'out of date' and will be removed.
Zuckerberg has also published his own comment on Collins' analysis of the communications, 'to share some more context around the decisions we made'.
The documents themselves, along with Collins' notes, are available from the Parliament website (PDF warning).
February 24 2020 | 12:00