In spite of Mark Zuckerberg’s pleas, Wednesday saw British lawmakers make good on their threat to release a trove of confidential documents pertaining to Facebook, including e-mail conversations between various employees and the C.E.O. himself. “I believe there is considerable public interest in releasing these documents,” Damian Collins, who chairs Britain’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, tweeted upon their release.
They raise important questions 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. Much of what’s contained in the 250 pages of documents, most of which are dated between 2012 and 2015, has been previously reported. But taken together, the conversations are a reminder that Facebook users are, and always have been, the company’s product—and that Zuckerberg and co. have gone to great lengths to exploit them in the name of making a buck.
Reasons for Revelations Expose the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg:
For instance, earlier this year, some Android users were surprised to learn that Facebook had collected logs of their SMS and call histories. Internal e-mails show that developers were fully aware such data was sensitive, but pushed for Facebook to collect it anyway. “This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a P.R. perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it,” one person wrote. Such data collection, others noted, wouldn’t even require informing the customer. “Based on their initial testing,” a developer wrote in another e-mail, “it seems this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all.”
Ultimately, Facebook used the data to improve its news-feed algorithms and its “People You May Know” feature. The company defended its decision in a statement, writing, “We use this information to do things like make better suggestions for people to call in Messenger and rank contact lists in Messenger and Facebook Lite. After a thorough review in 2018, it became clear that the information is not as useful after about a year.”
That Facebook considered depriving users of a way to opt-out of data collection as “subjecting them to permissions dialog” is revelatory. And the documents confirmed that Facebook’s covert data-gathering went further. In 2013, Facebook acquired an Israeli analytics company called Onavo, which could determine how people used other mobile apps—stats the company gathered without users’ knowledge. Slides from an internal presentation that year confirm Facebook used Onavo data to compare its reach to that of Snapchat and WhatsApp, among other competitors.
It then used the data to inform decision-making about its own products, effectively squashing Houseparty, a group video app used by teens, by launching its own similar feature, and of course, replicating Snapchat’s most popular services on Instagram. (In a statement, Facebook held that it has “always been clear when people download Onavo about the information that is collected and how it is used, including by Facebook.”
It added that “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. Websites and apps have used tools like Onavo for market research services for years.”) Other hints of ruthlessness are evident in Facebook’s seeming decision to choke out third-party developers’ access to user data, if they did not appear to be operating in Facebook’s best interest. In one 2013 exchange, Zuckerberg personally approves a shutdown of friends data access for Vine.
Twitter launched Vine today, which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video,” wrote Facebook exec Justin Osofsky “Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today.” Zuckerberg responds: “Yup, go for it.” (“These kind of restrictions are common across the tech industry with different platforms having their own variant including YouTube, Twitter, Snap and Apple,” Facebook wrote in its statement, adding that it would “remove this out-of-date policy so that our platform remains as open as possible.”) Zuckerberg was similarly gung-ho when it came to sharing user data with app developers, potentially without users’ knowledge, in exchange for similar transparency.