What just happened? A large archive of leaked documents proves Facebook has been using its control over user data to ensure it has the upper hand against potential rivals, while exploring different ways to present it as a serious effort to protect user privacy.
Recently, Congress asked big tech companies to supply internal documents for a broad antitrust probe into their affairs. In the case of Facebook, lawmakers want to know more about high ticket acquisitions and how its social graph has contributed to its growth.
Now, NBC News has published 7,000 pages of emails, notes and presentations, including 1,200 pages of “highly confidential” information that shows CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his management team had orchestrated plans to leverage user data against rivals while giving preferential access to companies that would help strengthen and extend Facebook’s power and reach.
The documents come from a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the now defunct Six4Three, the developer of bikini photo app Pikinis, which lost access to Facebook user data as a result of policy changes that were announced in 2014. They fill in some of the gaps in previously leaked documents that described Facebook’s strategy applied between 2012 and 2015.
While it’s no secret that user data is big business for companies like Facebook, internal communications between Facebook employees reveal several decisions to use it against competitors while marketing them as privacy protections. There was even internal debate on making a special data-sharing agreement with Apple to bolster the credibility of the campaign. Interestingly enough, earlier this year Zuckerberg outlined the company’s plan for a privacy-focused future, but who’s to say that’s not a clever way of siloing data from services used by billions of people so that Facebook can use it to grow in power and influence?
According to some of the documents, Facebook offered Amazon unrestricted access to user data during a time when the latter was spending large amounts of money advertising on Facebook. When Amazon developed its Wish List bookmarklet, Facebook saw it as a direct competitor to its own Gifts App, so it discussed limiting Amazon’s access to friends data to a degree that made it a lot less appealing. It’s worth mentioning the Gifts app is one of Facebook’s many acquisitions that are currently under the microscope in several antitrust probes.
Then there’s an internal conversation that shows Facebook sought to change APIs that allowed Twitter to see users’ friends lists after seeing that it was helping the latter extend its reach while it was doing little in return for Facebook.
These are just a few highlights on a long list of conversations that show the data restriction policies were part of a project dubbed “PS12N,” which would sort apps and services into “buckets.” The company would then take specific measures against them that ranged from monitoring access, to cutting off access to certain types of user data, and outright blacklisting.
The first bucket was called “pure competitors,” and included messaging apps, contact apps, and third-party Facebook clients. The second included potential competitors like Twitter, Pinterest, Evernote, Dropbox, and Path. The third was essentially every company that was riding on Facebook’s social graph while presenting no competitive threat – games, dating apps, streaming services, and others. In some discussions there is even mention of a fourth bucket that includes Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and every other partner with a contract.
Some Facebook employees questioned the company’s direction in internal conversations, while others expressed admiration for Zuckerberg, describing him as the “master of leverage.” But you only need to look at a former executive’s story to understand that Facebook’s public message is at odds with its true intentions.