Emails show Zuckerberg targeted Twitter’s Vine and gave some companies special data access, among other revelations
The UK parliament has published a cache of confidential Facebook documents it obtained from a plaintiff in a California lawsuit. The records, which have been under seal in US courts, provided a rare window into internal discussions at the social network about privacy, user data, the company’s handling of competitors and more.
Facebook’s director of developer platforms and programs, Konstantinos
Papamiltiadis, told the Guardian in an earlier statement that the
documents from the lawsuit “are only part of the story and are presented
in a way that is very misleading without additional context”.
Here are some key takeaways from the files.
Zuckerberg targeted Vine: ‘Go for it’
The documents revealed that when Twitter launched its video app Vine in 2013, Facebook
was quick to respond by limiting the app’s access to its own user data.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg directly approved this decision, the emails show.
Justin Osofsky, a Facebook vice-president, wrote that Vine allowed
users to find friends via Facebook, saying: “Unless anyone raises
objections, we will shut down their friends API [application programming
interface] access today.” He added: “We’ve prepared reactive PR.”
Zuckerberg responded: “Yup, go for it.”
Twitter eventually shut down Vine.
The company said
this week that Zuckerberg and others were following its policy at the
time governing competitor apps’ data access. On Tuesday, before the
documents were released, Facebook announced
it would remove this “out of date policy so that our platform remains
as open as possible”, moving away from its restrictions on “apps built
on top of our platform that replicated our core functionality”.
Facebook said collection of phone data was ‘high-risk’
The documents shed light on internal discussions before it was publicly revealed that Facebook logged text messages and phone calls through smartphone apps. In 2015, Facebook started “continuously uploading” logs from Android phones, eventually prompting a privacy scandal.
The communications showed that Facebook was focused on minimizing negative publicity in the rollout of these features.
“This is a pretty high-risk thing to do from a PR perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it,” one internal email said, predicting the possible backlash. “We think the risk of PR fallout here is high … Screenshot of the scary Android permissions screen becomes a meme … it gets press attention, and enterprising journalists dig into what exactly the new update is requesting, then write stories about ‘Facebook uses new Android update to pry into your private life in ever more terrifying ways’.”
Facebook explored accessing phone logs without ‘permissions dialog’
The emails also implied that Facebook considered whether it could
“upgrade” Android users to give access to phone data without “subjecting
them” to a specific “permissions dialog”.
An internal email said: “The Growth team is now exploring a path
where we only request Read Call Log permission, and hold off on
requesting other permissions for now. Based on their initial testing, it
seems that this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them
to an Android permissions dialog at all. It would still be a breaking
change, so users would have to click to upgrade, but no permissions
Presumably, this “path” could have decreased transparency around a critical privacy matter.
Facebook said in a statement Wednesday that the feature in question
“allows people to opt in to giving Facebook access to their call and
text messaging logs” in the Messenger app on Android devices. “We use
this information to do things like make better suggestions for people to
call in Messenger.”
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the outcome of the
specific “permissions dialog” exchange in the emails, but the company’s
statement said: “The feature is opt-in for users and we ask for people’s
permission before enabling. We always consider the best way to ask for a
person’s permission, whether that’s through a permission dialog set by a
mobile operating system like Android or iOS, or a permission we design
in the Facebook app.”
The statement added: “This was not a discussion about avoiding asking people for permission.”
Facebook monitored competitors with its Onavo app
The records offered some insight into how Facebook used Onavo, a security app that it owns which provides users with a free virtual private network (VPN) that is supposed to provide a “safer connection” for accessing apps or the web on mobile.
But there has been growing concern that Onavo’s data collection has
allowed Facebook to gather information about app usage that it could
then use to assess competition. It was reported earlier this year that Onavo data helped Facebook come to its decision to purchase WhatsApp and to clone a group video chat app.
The documents included a Facebook “industry update” presentation from 2013, which used Onavo data to measure US iPhone app reach, comparing Facebook with competitors.
Facebook’s statement said: “We’ve always been clear when people
download Onavo about the information that is collected and how it is
used, including by Facebook.”
Facebook gave ‘whitelisted’ tech companies special data access
While Facebook has sought to reduce data access of some competitors,
in some cases the social network has given “special” access to tech
platforms it “whitelisted”, the documents show.
Most notably, Airbnb, Lyft and Netflix all had arrangements with Facebook.
“We will be whitelisted for getting all friends, not just connected friends,” Netflix wrote to Facebook summarizing its data access.
Facebook has noted that it eventually changed its policy to further restrict data access.
Zuckerberg ‘personally reviewed’ competitors for restrictions
One document signaled Zuckerberg’s level of involvement in making
decisions about competitors and data access. It said, “We maintain a
small list of strategic competitors that Mark personally reviewed. Apps
produced by the companies on this list are subject to a number of
restrictions outlined below. Any usage beyond that specified is not
permitted without Mark level sign-off.”
1 Facebook Documents Published By UK – The Key Takeaways Photos