Facebook al­legedly of­fered ad­ver­tis­ers spe­cial ac­cess to user data

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - International Business -

A trove of emails and in­ter­nal doc­u­ments re­leased by a Bri­tish law­maker on Wed­nes­day il­lus­trate how Facebook rose to dom­i­nance years ago by us­ing peo­ple’s data as a bar­gain­ing chip, un­der­min­ing the so­cial me­dia giant’s claim that changes to its busi­ness prac­tices were mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to pro­tect peo­ple’s pri­vacy.

The more than 250 pages of doc­u­ments, which a Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee re­cently ob­tained as part of a wide-rang­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Facebook, re­volve around a de­ci­sion Facebook made in 2014 and 2015 to cut off de­vel­op­ers’ ac­cess to posts, photos and other pro­file in­for­ma­tion from Facebook users. The in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions, some of them from Facebook CEO Mark Zucker­berg, ap­pear to show Facebook trad­ing ac­cess to user data in ex­change for ad­ver­tis­ing buys and other con­ces­sions, which would con­tra­dict Facebook’s long-stand­ing claim that it doesn’t sell peo­ple’s in­for­ma­tion.

“We’ve never sold any­one’s data,” Zucker­berg said in a post Wed­nes­day. He added that the emails re­leased by Damian Collins, the chair­man of the Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee, “were only part of our dis­cus­sions.”

The records re­leased by Collins are part of an on­go­ing fed­eral court case in Cal­i­for­nia brought by an app de­vel­oper called Six4three. Facebook said the Six4three doc­u­ments were mis­lead­ingly crafted and do not rep­re­sent the com­pany’s prac­tices or poli­cies.

The cut­throat tac­tics de­ployed by Facebook in its early years as a pub­lic com­pany, and de­tailed in the newly re­leased doc­u­ments, caught up with the so­cial me­dia giant this year. They are likely to fuel per­sis­tent claims that the com­pany was cav­a­lier with peo­ple’s per­sonal in­for­ma­tion and set off even more con­cern among the pub­lic and law­mak­ers around the world that Facebook’s foot­print is a risk to con­sumers and com­peti­tors alike.

A se­ries of emails from Oc­to­ber 2012 re­veal Zucker­berg’s keen in­ter­est in fig­ur­ing out how to ex­tract rev­enue from Facebook’s trove of user data and the app de­vel­op­ers who re­lied on it. “There’s a big ques­tion on where we get rev­enue from,” Zucker­berg wrote to one of his ex­ec­u­tives.

“With­out lim­it­ing dis­tri­bu­tion or ac­cess to friends who use this app, I don’t think we have any way to get de­vel­op­ers to pay us at all be­sides of­fer­ing pay­ments and ad net­works,” he con­tin­ued. Zucker­berg’s pri­vate state­ments ap­pear to con­tra­dict a stance he had long main­tained pub­licly, that app de­vel­op­ers’ ac­cess was open and free.

Facebook said the 2015 de­ci­sion to cut off de­vel­op­ers’ ac­cess to peo­ple’s in­for­ma­tion was mo­ti­vated by pri­vacy con­cerns. But it also caused dozens of busi­nesses, in­clud­ing Six4three, to shut down, and it was a turn­ing point in Facebook’s re­la­tion­ship with the startup com­mu­nity in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Collins’ in­ter­est in the sealed and heav­ily redacted doc­u­ments springs from the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s in­quiry into Facebook’s deal­ings with po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, which also ben­e­fited from the same ac­cess to user data. Facebook re­vealed ear­lier this year that Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica was able to ob­tain data on 87 mil­lion Facebook users.

Since the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica con­tro­versy erupted in March, law­mak­ers have re­peat­edly ques­tioned Facebook about its re­la­tion­ships with data part­ners, and the in­ci­dent has spawned sev­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions. In the U.S., the Jus­tice De­part­ment, the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion and the FTC have been in­ves­ti­gat­ing Facebook’s han­dling of this data and its pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tions about it.

The trove re­leased by Collins “highlights ar­eas in which the com­pany was know­ingly de­cep­tive,” said Ashkan Soltani, a for­mer top tech­nol­o­gist at the FTC. “It speaks to how both disin­gen­u­ous the com­pany is, and how anti-com­pet­i­tive some of their prac­tices are.”

The newly re­leased cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Zucker­berg and his top brass be­tween 2012 and 2015 - though par­tial and col­lected by plain­tiffs in a le­gal bat­tle - of­fer in­sights into how Facebook strug­gled to balance its need to make money off smart­phones with the am­bi­tions of de­vel­op­ers who had come to rely on its rich trove of data about peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ships and pref­er­ences.

In his post Wed­nes­day, Zucker­berg said that the in­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tions re­flected the need to be­come “eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able” as the com­pany tran­si­tioned from desk­top to a mo­bile app, and that the ac­tions that the com­pany took against against de­vel­op­ers were a re­sponse to apps that were abus­ing peo­ple’s pri­vacy.

But pri­vacy did not ap­pear to fig­ure heav­ily into the ex­ec­u­tives’ dis­cus­sions or into Zucker­berg’s own emails. The emails were largely fo­cused on com­pe­ti­tion and on how to lever­age Facebook’s ex­ten­sive re­la­tion­ships with app de­vel­op­ers, in­clud­ing Lyft, Airbnb, Nis­san, Tin­der and Net­flix. Ex­ec­u­tives also used a free app that Facebook had ac­quired, called Onavo Pro­tect, to mon­i­tor how fre­quently con­sumers were log­ging into po­ten­tially com­pet­i­tive ser­vices, such as the live video-stream­ing app Vine.

As Vine was get­ting off the ground, a Facebook man­ager sug­gested that the com­pany im­me­di­ately cut off the po­ten­tial com­peti­tors’ ac­cess to data, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments. “Yup, go for it,” Zucker­berg replied.

The dis­cus­sions also cen­tered around a con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice known as whitelist­ing, in which Facebook gave se­lect com­pa­nies pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to data af­ter the 2015 re­stric­tions went into ef­fect. Zucker­berg did not tell Congress about the com­pany’s whitelist­ing when he tes­ti­fied in April, but sub­se­quent re­ports have ex­posed priv­i­leged re­la­tion­ships bro­kered by Facebook. The com­pany has since con­ceded that over 100 apps re­ceived spe­cial priv­i­leges, in part to main­tain their func­tion­al­ity as the tran­si­tion to less data went into ef­fect.

“It is not clear that there was any user con­sent for this,” Collins said of the whitelist­ing, in a state­ment. “Nor how Facebook de­cided which com­pa­nies should be whitelisted or not.”

He said ma­jor changes to Facebook’s un­der­ly­ing poli­cies and tech­nol­ogy were driven by a de­sire to ob­tain “in­creas­ing rev­enues from ma­jor app de­vel­op­ers.”

Justin Brookman, the di­rec­tor of con­sumer pri­vacy and tech­nol­ogy pol­icy for Con­sumers Union, said the whitelist­ing amounts to a “prima fa­cie vi­o­la­tion” of a 2011 con­sent de­cree that Facebook bro­kered with the U.S. gov­ern­ment over a pre­vi­ous pri­vacy mishap. That agree­ment stip­u­lated that Facebook could not give away peo­ple’s data to de­vel­op­ers with­out their per­mis­sion, and it could carry fines for vi­o­la­tions.

There’s “pretty clear doc­u­men­ta­tion that they had a new set­ting to say, ‘don’t share my new data with what­ever crap app my friends in­stalled,’ and then they went into agree­ment with a bunch of apps to get them that data,” said Brookman, who pre­vi­ously served as a top tech aide at the agency.

– The Wash­ing­ton Post

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