A cache of internal Facebook documents released by a U.K. member of Parliament show how CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives wrestled with how to monetize their valuable user data while still encouraging third-party apps to post user activity on Facebook.
In a 2012 email, Zuckerberg suggested making Facebook login and posting content on the platform free while charging “a lot of money” to read user data, like friend information, from the network. App developers would be able to pay the costs directly or offset them with other transactions, like ad buys or use of Facebook’s payment platform, he suggested. That proposal was never implemented, according to Facebook.
Executives also seemed concerned that simply enabling Facebook logins and data access for potentially competing platforms could ultimately cannibalize user activity on Facebook itself.
“Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and to make that app social by having Facebook plug into it,” Zuckerberg wrote in 2012. “However, that may be good for the world but it’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network.”
As Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Wednesday blog post, the company limited access to data to “prevent abusive apps” starting in 2014. “This change meant that a lot of sketchy apps-like the quiz app that sold data to Cambridge Analytica could no longer operate on our platform,” he wrote.
But the documents also show discussions about giving special friend list access to particular companies, including Airbnb and Netflix, after it was no longer available by default to most developers.
“Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data,” wrote MP Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee. “It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.”
Facebook said Wednesday that limited data extensions were given to particular developers and that whitelists of developers allowed to use certain features are commonly used in beta testing. The company limited app developer access to lists of friends, other than those also using the same app, in most cases, according to the statement. “In some situations, when necessary, we allowed developers to access a list of the users’ friends,” according to Facebook.
I believe there is considerable public interest in releasing these documents. 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.
— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) December 5, 2018
In a later statement emailed to Fast Company, the company cautioned that some of the documents, which were originally turned over in a California lawsuit, could be misleading and don’t necessarily reflect actual company practices.
“As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context,” a spokesperson wrote. “We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.”
In his blog post, Zuckerberg said the company ultimately elected to provide a developer interface for free and to let them optionally buy ads.
“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,” he wrote. “To be clear, that’s different from selling people’s data. We’ve never sold anyone’s data.”
Documents released also show Facebook officials concerned with the PR consequences of the data the company collected from users. In 2015, Facebook staff discussed “a feature that lets you continuously upload your SMS and call log history to Facebook to be used for improving things like [People You May Know, a friend recommendation feature], coefficient calculation, feed ranking, etc.”
One email cautioned it could be “a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective,” and internal discussions focused on which Android permissions to request in which app upgrades to avoid causing “PR fallout” and adverse user responses.
“This specific feature allows people to opt in to giving Facebook access to their call and text messaging logs in Facebook Lite and Messenger on Android devices,” Facebook said in its statement. “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.”