Secret Facebook files reveal plot to crush competition
Documents seized by Parliament show the social network shut down data access for competitors
FACEBOOK cut off data access to rival companies, which it saw as threatening its business, according to internal documents seized as part of Parliament’s “fake news” inquiry.
The documents, dating from 2012 and 2013 and published by Parliament yesterday, show Facebook executives including Mark Zuckerberg discussing how to choke off companies who began to compete with its own services.
The disclosures are potentially damaging for Facebook as governments around the world increasingly scrutinise its powerful position in the digital advertising market. In the UK two Whitehall reviews are due to report early next year amid calls for a full inquiry by competition watchdogs.
The documents also show Facebook staff discussing how to avoid asking users’ permission to read their text messages and record their mobile phone logs in order to dodge a “PR fallout”. A previous release from the same trove of files showed that Facebook considered trading access to its data in return for various considerations, something Mr Zuckerberg has said it will never do.
In response, Facebook said the documents were presented in a “very misleading manner”, that it stood by its platform policies and that it had never sold users’ data.
In one email, Mr Zuckerberg is asked to sign off on plans to “shut down” data access for Vine, a video-sharing app launched by Facebook’s rival service, Twitter. He responds: “Yup, go for it.”
An internal memo explains why the company “will now allow” access for developers who “do not want to participate in the ecosystem we have created” but instead wish to build their own at Facebook’s expense.
Another document shows that Mark Zuckerberg personally reviewed a small list of “strategic competitors”, which could not be given full access without his approval.
Elsewhere, Mr Zuckerberg appears to dismiss the possibility that Facebook’s data systems could be abused in the way that they eventually were by Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that harvested user data for use in election campaigns.
“I’m generally sceptical that there is as much data leak strategic risk as you think,” he wrote. “I think we leak info to developers, but I just can’t think if any instances where that data has leaked from developer to developer and caused a real issue for us.”
The documents originally created as part of a lawsuit by Six4Three, an app company that claims Facebook’s changes to its data access policies in 2015 unfairly “destroyed” its business.
Those changes led Six4Three to shut down its app, Pikinis, which let users find photos of their friends in bathing suits by searching their friends list.
A California court had ordered that the emails be kept secret as part of the ongoing lawsuit against the social network, but they were seized by Damian Collins, the chairman the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee, using an unusual parliamentary mechanism.
On Tuesday, just before the documents were released, Facebook updated its policies to remove restrictions on letting companies build competing services using its platform.
In a blog post, the company defended its practices, saying that the documents were “cherry-picked” by Six4Three and that they “tell only one side of the story and omit important context”.
On his own Facebook profile, Mr Zuckerberg wrote: “Like any organisation, we had a lot of internal discussion and people raised different ideas …
to be clear, we’ve never sold anyone’s data.”
The documents appear to show that when Facebook changed its data access policies, it made agreements with several companies to provide them with special access to users’ information, including the ride-sharing app Lyft, ticket seller Ticketmaster, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada.
“It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not,” said the DCMS committee in a statement preceding the emails.
In another email, discussing an update to Facebook’s Android mobile app to allow it to collect users’ call logs, an employee writes: “This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective, but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it.”
Mr Collins said: “I believe there is considerable public interest in releasing these documents.”