Se­cret Facebook files re­veal plot to crush com­pe­ti­tion

Doc­u­ments seized by Par­lia­ment show the so­cial net­work shut down data ac­cess for com­peti­tors

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - By Han­nah Boland, Natasha Ber­nal and Lau­rence Dodds

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.”

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