Complex Made Simple

Facebook has been using your personal data as a hot commodity

7,000 pages of leaked confidential documents released to the public by NBC News have painted a condemning image of Facebook and their corporate ethics.

The documents originated in a lawsuit between Facebook and a startup dating back to 2015 The full documents were sent to an investigative journalist, who then passed them on to NBC News and other news sites The documents depict Facebook's dubious ethics and fear of losing out to competitors, with the company even resorting to anti-competitive practices to pressure rivals - or potential rivals

It seems a month doesn’t pass by without Facebook factoring in the news somehow. From sequential hacks, to court hearings and even political tampering, the company has been the proverbial punching bag of regulators in the US.

Well, things just got worse. 

4,000 confidential documents leaked to the public

This month, NBC News released 7,000 pages of confidential Facebook documents after a tip off in February by British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, who himself was sent the documents by an anonymous source. These include emails, web chats, notes, presentations and spreadsheets, primarily from 2011 to 2015 representing the true state of internal communication at Facebook offices.

The documents were compiled following a court case between Facebook and the now-defunct startup Six4Three. Six4Three sued Facebook in 2015, claiming at the time that it was driven out of business when the social media giant cut off its access to more detailed information about Facebook users, according to NBC

A PR disaster in progress

The documents provide an unpleasant image of Facebook, depicting unethical harnessing of user data. This includes permitting certain companies and preventing others from accessing their trove of user data. 

“On multiple occasions in the early 2010s, Facebook employees discussed plans to selectively restrict access to that valuable data for apps making competing products, like Twitter, Amazon, Pinterest, and YouTube — even in cases when those apps had already been approved to access Facebook user data,” Business Insiders (BI) sheds light on the story. 

BI also comments on a a leaked exchange from October 2011 showing high-ranking employees planning to blacklist Twitter from seeing users’ friends lists, a measure that Facebook already enacted for YouTube. The conversation took place at a time when Facebook was aware it had leverage over Twitter, according to Computer Weekly — Twitter links represented 1% of outbound traffic on Facebook, while Facebook links made up 33% of outbound traffic on Twitter. 

“Can you check to make sure we restrict the Twitter API to block out friend lists?” one employee wrote.

User privacy was never the focus of these discussions, and apparently was only used as PR talk to quell the public’s concerns regarding any changes they make to operations like the aforementioned API blocking. 

Ars Technica comments on another exchange: “Facebook in 2014 made significant changes to the way developers were able to access user information through its APIs. The company needed a way to sell such a large-scale change, though, so it came up with a narrative: privacy.”

This is what Ilya Sukhar, head of developer products until 2016, said about this, which he calls a “switcharoo plan”: “Hi guys, I invited you all to a doc that outlines the details of the “switcharoo” plan some of us have been knocking around. I think it is a good compromise given all the restraints, and we’ll be able to tell a story that makes sense.”

Anti-competitive practices
But twisting of public opinion is only one condemning facet of this leak. Then, there’s the matter of anti-competitive practices. 

“A series of email exchanges from 2013 also discuss in detail the choices Facebook made to prohibit potential competitors from advertising on its apps,” Ars Technica continued. “Ultimately, company leadership seemed to settle on messenger apps being more of a threat than other types of services.”

And by company leadership, it was none other than the enigmatic CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself. 

“I think we should block WeChat, Kakao, and Line ads,” Zuckerberg wrote in a 2013 email. “Those companies are trying to build social networks and replace us. The revenue is immaterial to us compared to any risk. I agree we should use ads to promote our own products, but I’d still block companies that compete with our core from gaining any advantage from us.”

NBC News reiterates about Facebook overall activities: “In some cases, Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.

The aftermath

Ever since NBC News published the documents, Facebook has been making headlines across the world once more. They say any publicity is good publicity, but we highly doubt it in this scenario.

When approached for comment by Business Insider, a Facebook spokesperson had this to say: 

“These old documents have been taken out of context by someone with an agenda against Facebook, and have been distributed publicly with a total disregard for US law.”

The statement doesn’t carry anything particularly interesting – it’s standard PR talk, quickly shifting the blame to the whistleblower and his/her lawbreaking. In truth, it’s Facebook that will likely be investigated for lawbreaking, given ongoing anti-trust scrutiny by regulators in the world. A lot of the information in the documents could constitute the basis for many court cases now that all of the world’s eyes are on it. 

Just another day at Facebook HQ, then…