Face­book emails show it ex­plored sell­ing data

Com­pany says it con­sid­ered charg­ing de­vel­op­ers

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Jes­sica Guynn USA TO­DAY

SAN FRAN­CISCO – In­ter­nal Face­book emails pub­lished on­line by U.K. law­mak­ers, some in­volv­ing CEO Mark Zucker­berg, paint a pic­ture of a com­pany ag­gres­sively hunt­ing for ways to make money from the reams of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion it was col­lect­ing from users. Wed­nes­day’s re­lease of some 250 pages of emails from 2012 to 2015 – a pe­riod of dra­matic growth for the newly pub­licly traded com­pany – pro­vides a rare glimpse into Face­book’s in­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tions, sug­gest­ing the so­cial me­dia gi­ant gave pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to some third-party app de­vel­op­ers such as Airbnb, Lyft and Net­flix, while re­strict­ing ac­cess for oth­ers. It also con­sid­ered charg­ing app de­vel­op­ers for ac­cess to data, de­spite pledges that it would never do so.

There is no in­di­ca­tion Face­book went for­ward with a pro­posal to charge app de­vel­op­ers for ac­cess to the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion of Face­book users. On Wed­nes­day, Zucker­berg de­nied Face­book ever sold or con­sid­ered sell­ing the data of its more than 2 bil­lion users.

“Like any or­ga­ni­za­tion, we had a lot of in­ter­nal dis­cus­sion and peo­ple raised dif­fer­ent ideas. Ul­ti­mately, we de­cided on a model where we con­tin­ued to pro­vide the de­vel­oper plat­form for free and de­vel­op­ers could choose to buy ads if they wanted,” he wrote in a Face­book post re­spond­ing to the re­lease of the in­ter­nal emails by U.K. law­mak­ers. “Other ideas we con­sid­ered but de­cided against in­cluded charg­ing de­vel­op­ers for us­age of our plat­form, sim­i­lar to how de­vel­op­ers pay to use Ama­zon AWS or Google Cloud. To be clear, that’s dif­fer­ent from sell­ing peo­ple’s data. We’ve never sold any­one’s data.”

Ac­cord­ing to some of the emails, Face­book dis­cussed cut­ting off ac­cess to ri­val com­pa­nies and giv­ing app de­vel­op­ers who bought ad­ver­tis­ing spe­cial ac­cess to data. It also pro­vided ac­cess to app de­vel­op­ers that en­cour­aged Face­book users to spend more time on the so­cial net­work.

The rev­e­la­tions that shed light on pre­vi­ously un­known Face­book prac­tices were in­cluded in in­ter­nal doc­u­ments seized by U.K. law­mak­ers from the de­vel­oper of a de­funct bikini photo search­ing app, Piki­nis, as part of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into fake news. The emails were sealed in a Cal­i­for­nia law­suit filed by Six4Three. Six4Three sued Face­book in 2015, al­leg­ing the so­cial net­work’s data poli­cies fa­vored some com­pa­nies over oth­ers.

“I’ve been think­ing about plat­form busi­ness model a lot this week­end. ... if we make it so (de­vel­op­ers) can gen­er­ate rev­enue for us in dif­fer­ent ways, then it makes it more ac­cept­able for us to charge them quite a bit more for us­ing plat­form,” Zucker­berg wrote in one

email. In an­other email in 2012, Zucker­berg seemed to shrug off con­cerns about the se­cu­rity of Face­book users’ data. “I think we leak info to de­vel­op­ers, but I just can’t think of any in­stances where that data has leaked from de­vel­oper to de­vel­oper and caused real is­sue for us,” he wrote.

Face­book called the Six4Three law­suit “base­less” and says the com­pany “cher­ryp­icked” doc­u­ments.

“The set of doc­u­ments, by de­sign, tells only one side of the story and omits im­por­tant con­text,” the com­pany said in a state­ment.

Pub­lic trust in Face­book’s han­dling of peo­ple’s per­sonal in­for­ma­tion has been shaken by a se­ries of crises. Chief among them is Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, a po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm hired by Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that has been ac­cused of im­prop­erly ac­cess­ing mil­lions of Face­book ac­counts with­out users’ con­sent.

A Bri­tish re­searcher and his firm, Global Science Re­search, le­git­i­mately gained ac­cess to the per­sonal data of Face­book users and their friends in

2013 while work­ing on a per­son­al­ity app, and passed that data to Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. Face­book be­gan re­strict­ing app de­vel­op­ers’ ac­cess user data in 2014 and 2015.

“We still stand by the plat­form changes we made in 2014/2015, which pre­vented peo­ple from shar­ing their friends’ in­for­ma­tion with de­vel­op­ers like the cre­ators of Piki­nis,” Face­book said in a state­ment. “The ex­ten­sions we granted at that time were short term and only used to pre­vent peo­ple from los­ing ac­cess to spe­cific func­tions as de­vel­op­ers up­dated their apps. Piki­nis didn’t re­ceive an ex­ten­sion, and they went to court.”

Damian Collins, chair­man of the dig­i­tal, cul­ture, me­dia and sport par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gat­ing Face­book, said law­mak­ers re­leased the doc­u­ments be­cause “we don’t feel we have had straight an­swers from Face­book on these im­por­tant is­sues.”

Last week, Collins an­nounced he planned to re­lease the emails after forc­ing Ted Kramer, the founder of

Six4Three, to hand them over dur­ing a busi­ness trip to Lon­don. On Fri­day, Cal­i­for­nia Su­pe­rior Court Judge V. Ray­mond Swope or­dered Kramer to turn over his lap­top to a foren­sic ex­pert after Kramer ad­mit­ted he had turned over the Face­book doc­u­ments to law­mak­ers.

“I be­lieve there is con­sid­er­able pub­lic in­ter­est in re­leas­ing these doc­u­ments. They raise im­por­tant ques- tions about how Face­book treats users data, their poli­cies for work­ing with app de­vel­op­ers, and how they ex­er­cise their dom­i­nant po­si­tion in the so­cial me­dia mar­ket,” he wrote in a Twit­ter post.

Among the de­tails in the Face­book emails:

❚ Face­book staffers ex­plored how to use ac­cess to Face­book users’ data to get com­pa­nies to spend more on ad­ver­tis­ing. In 2012, Face­book staffers de­bated re­mov­ing re­stric­tions on user data for de­vel­op­ers who spent $250,000 or more on ads.

Face­book’s re­sponse: “We ex­plored mul­ti­ple ways to build a sus­tain­able busi­ness with de­vel­op­ers who were build­ing apps that were use­ful to peo­ple. ... We ul­ti­mately set­tled on a model where de­vel­op­ers did not need to pur­chase ad­ver­tis­ing.”

❚ When com­peti­tor Twit­ter launched Vine in 2013, Face­book shut down ac­cess to keep the mo­bile video app from grow­ing through friends on the plat­form and com­pet­ing with In­sta­gram, which it owns. “Un­less any­one raises ob­jec­tions, we will shut down their friends API ac­cess to­day. We’ve pre­pared re­ac­tive PR,” Face­book ex­ec­u­tive Justin Osof­sky wrote to Zucker­berg. “Yup, go for it,” Zucker­berg replied.

Face­book’s re­sponse: “We built our de­vel­oper plat­form years ago to pave the way for in­no­va­tion in so­cial apps and ser­vices. At that time we made the de­ci­sion to re­strict apps built on top of our plat­form that repli­cated our core func­tion­al­ity. These kind of re­stric­tions are com­mon across the tech in­dus­try.”

❚ In 2015, the com­pany be­gan upload­ing call and text logs from An­droid phones. Collins’ com­mit­tee says Face­book tried to make it “as hard as pos­si­ble” for users to un­der­stand that their calls and texts would be col­lected. At the time, a Face­book en­gi­neer said the prac­tice was a “high-risk thing to do from a PR per­spec­tive.” The data of­fered a com­pre­hen­sive look into how users com­mu­ni­cated on their mo­bile de­vices.

Face­book’s re­sponse: The com­pany says it al­lowed Face­book users to opt into giv­ing the so­cial net­work ac­cess to their call and text logs.

❚ Face­book used its se­cu­rity app, Onavo, to gather in­for­ma­tion on how many peo­ple used cer­tain apps and how of­ten they used them to help Face­book de­cide which com­pa­nies it should ac­quire, in­clud­ing mes­sag­ing app What­sApp for $19 bil­lion, and which to view as a com­pet­i­tive threat.

Face­book’s re­sponse: “We’ve al­ways been clear when peo­ple down­load Onavo about the in­for­ma­tion that is col­lected and how it is used, in­clud­ing by Face­book. ... Peo­ple can opt-out via the con­trol in their set­tings and their data won’t be used for any­thing other than to pro­vide, im­prove and de­velop Onavo prod­ucts and ser­vices.”

JACK GRUBER/USA TO­DAY

In­ter­nal doc­u­ments re­veal that Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg was look­ing for ways to make money from users’ in­for­ma­tion.

AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Face­book data cen­ter in Lulea, in Swedish La­p­land.

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