Face­book said to weaponize data

Brits re­lease emails de­tail­ing dis­cus­sions on lev­er­ag­ing user info

The Dallas Morning News - - Business - Adam Satar­i­ano and Mike Isaac, The New York Times

Doc­u­ments re­leased Wed­nes­day show that Face­book cut spe­cial deals with some app de­vel­op­ers to give them more ac­cess to data, while ic­ing out oth­ers that it viewed as po­ten­tial ri­vals.

NOTE: U.S. fi­nan­cial mar­kets were closed Wed­nes­day in ob­ser­vance of for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s fu­neral.

Face­book used the moun­tains of data it col­lected on users to fa­vor cer­tain part­ners and pun­ish ri­vals, giv­ing com­pa­nies such as Airbnb and Net­flix spe­cial ac­cess to its plat­form while cut­ting off oth­ers that it per­ceived as threats.

The tac­tics came to light on Wed­nes­day from in­ter­nal Face­book emails and other com­pany doc­u­ments re­leased by a Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee that is in­ves­ti­gat­ing on­line mis­in­for­ma­tion. The doc­u­ments spot­light Face­book’s be­hav­ior from roughly 2012 to 2015, a pe­riod of ex­plo­sive growth as the com­pany nav­i­gated how to man­age the in­for­ma­tion it was gath­er­ing on users and de­bated how best to profit from what it was build­ing.

The doc­u­ments show how Face­book ex­ec­u­tives treated data as the com­pany’s most valu­able re­source and of­ten wielded it to gain a strate­gic ad­van­tage. Mark Zucker­berg, Face­book’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, and Sh­eryl Sand­berg, the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, were in­ti­mately in­volved in de­ci­sions aimed at ben­e­fit­ing the so­cial net­work above all else and keep­ing users as en­gaged as pos­si­ble on the site, ac­cord­ing to emails that were part of the doc­u­ment trove.

In one ex­change from 2012 when Zucker­berg dis­cussed charg­ing de­vel­op­ers for ac­cess to user data and per­suad­ing them to share their data with the so­cial net­work, he wrote: “It’s not good for us un­less peo­ple also share back to Face­book and that con­tent in­creases the value of our net­work. So ul­ti­mately, I think the pur­pose of plat­form — even the read side — is to in­crease shar­ing back into Face­book.”

The re­lease of the in­ter­nal doc­u­ments adds to Face­book’s chal­lenges as it wres­tles with is­sues as var­ied as how it en­abled the spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion and whether it prop­erly safe­guarded the data of its users. Zucker­berg and Sand­berg are un­der scru­tiny for their han­dling of the mat­ters; the ex­ec­u­tives have pub­licly said they were slow to re­spond to some of the prob­lems.

In a state­ment, Face­book said the doc­u­ments were se­lec­tively cho­sen to be em­bar­rass­ing and mislead­ing as part of a “base­less” law­suit. “Like any busi­ness, we had many in­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tions about the var­i­ous ways we could build a sus­tain­able busi­ness model for our plat­form,” the com­pany said. “But the facts are clear: We’ve never sold peo­ple’s data.”

Zucker­berg posted his own re­sponse on Face­book after the pub­li­ca­tion of the doc­u­ments, say­ing the com­pany had lim­ited its ac­cess to cer­tain apps and made other changes to pre­vent abuse of its plat­form. “I un­der­stand there is a lot of scru­tiny on how we run our sys­tems,” he wrote, adding that con­text was needed. “This was an im­por­tant change to pro­tect our com­mu­nity, and it achieved its goal.”

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