The U.K. Parliament has published 250 pages of secret internal Facebook emails that lawmakers claim show the company — and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in particular — was planning to sell access to user data to developers willing to spend at least $250,000 a year.
The explosive set of documents contradict Zuckerberg's repeated denials that Facebook was willing to monetize access to its users’ data. The CEO even appears to openly contemplate a business model that leverages user data:
“I’ve been thinking about platform business model a lot this weekend," Zuckerberg said in an email on Oct. 7, 2012. “If we make it so devs 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 goes on to write that a charge of $0.10 per user per year would be acceptable.
The emails serve up another blow to Facebook's public image following two years of near-constant crises and will likely pique the interest of antitrust regulators on both sides of the Atlantic as they appear to reveal a company looking to aggressively leverage its position to maintain dominance while turning the screws on developers and rivals.
The U.K.’s Digital, Culture Media, and Sports Committee, which published the documents, has been investigating Facebook’s privacy issues related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The body’s chairman, Damian Collins, has repeatedly called on Zuckerberg to testify before the committee — but with no success.
“I believe there is considerable public interest in releasing these documents,” Collins said Wednesday. “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.”
The committee alleges the documents also show that Zuckerberg was willing to cut off rival apps that threatened Facebook’s dominance. In one instance, a colleague wrote that the company had planned to turn off access to Twitter’s new Vine video app after its launch in 2013. Zuckerberg simply responded, “Yup, go for it.”
The company also reportedly white-listed a number of apps — Netflix, Lyft, Hot or Not, and Airbnb — meaning that they could maintain full access to friends’ data even after changes to the platform turned off that spigot in 2014.
The documents were seized last month from Ted Kramer, the CEO of Six4Three, a U.S. app developer suing Facebook in a California court. The social network had spent months attempting to keep the documents sealed.
The emails, however, are only a portion of those involved in the California lawsuit, and the full context cannot be confirmed. And Facebook, which has faced a litany of crises in the last two years, denies any wrongdoing.
“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 Facebook spokesperson told VICE News. “We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers.”
The committee is making six broad accusations against Facebook based on the documents officials seized:
- The company white-listed certain companies so they maintained full access to friends’ data after platform changes in 2014 and 2015.
- Increasing revenue from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind platforms changes at Facebook in 2014. “The idea of linking access to friends’ data to the financial value of the developers’ relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents,” according to the committee.
- The same platform changes prioritized full data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers, meaning Facebook had access to all the data collected by the apps aside from one-on-one or small group messaging.
- Facebook tried to hide the fact that its new app policy for its Android smartphone app allowed the company to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user.
- Facebook surveyed customers' mobile app usage to find out how many people had downloaded the app and how often they used it — but “apparently without their knowledge,” according to the committee.
- Facebook took aggressive positions against apps — such as withdrawing access — leading to the failure of that business.
Cover image: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)