A new trove of leaked documents revealed Facebook’s decision to limit access to user data in 2014 wasn’t as noble as Mark Zuckerberg wanted people to think. In reality, it was a move to undercut rivals and reward apps that gave the company something in return
A new report from NBC News details the contents of 4,000 pages of leaked documents from Facebook. The documents contain emails, presentations, and private chats between employees and high level executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, from between 2011-2015.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t make these changes because of “privacy,” as Facebook has claimed. Instead, user privacy was how Facebook positioned the change to soften the blow for developers who benefitted from that data, and get some positive PR in the process.
An anonymous source leaked the documents to investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, who shared the cache with NBC News, Computer Weekly, and Süddeutsche Zeitung. The documents come from the California lawsuit the app developer company Six4Three has pursued against Facebook for cutting off its access to user data in 2015. Facebook does not refute the legitimacy of the documents, but does say the documents constitute “cherry picking” information that doesn’t provide a full picture of Facebook’s activities and sentiments at the time. 4,000 pages of cherry picking, eh?
Previous reports based on some of the documents have already shown how Facebook gave user data to some big-budget advertisers (like Amazon and Netflix), while cutting off access to the API for competitors, like Vine (RIP). These reports have prompted Facebook to admit that it did, at the time, consider selling user data, which it ultimately decided against.
These new documents show the role that restricting access to data played in burgeoning Facebook’s struggling business, after its struggling IPO, and the rise of smartphones caused users to spend less time on Facebook. They provide context to why Facebook made the changes that it did around user data in 2014 and 2015.
Facebook was dealing with what the documents described as a “terminal decline” in user engagement with the rise of smartphones in 2012. Facebook executives including Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg honed in on their relationships with developers as a way to make money and boost engagement.
Ultimately, Zuckerberg landed on the idea of what he described as “full reciprocity”: Facebook would allow apps access to user data if they in turn shared their data with Facebook, advertised on Facebook, and made Facebook the hub for their users to share app content.
“The purpose of the platform is to tie the universe of all the social apps together so we can enable a lot more sharing and still remain the central social hub,” Zuckerberg wrote in an email where he detailed his new vision.
Or, as Facebook’s director of engineering at the time, Michael Vernal, wrote to his team in a 2013 email: “We gave a bunch of stuff ‘for free’ historically (data, distribution) and now we’re making you ‘pay’ for it via reciprocal value.” Employees questioned the move at the time. One called the preferential treatment of friends versus competitors as “sort of unethical.”
Once Zuckerberg landed on the new direction, Facebook proceeded to make changes with key partners like Tinder ahead of the 2014 F8 conference, where he would announce the larger changes to developers.
But how to position this change? Many businesses, like Six4Three, had built their apps on the promise of access to Facebook’s API. The emails show that Facebook landed on “user trust” and privacy as an explanation for why Facebook was changing its data policy. They even considered sprinkling out more privacy changes in the run up to F8 to make the announcement “seem more natural.”
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year, Facebook pushed the narrative that its decision to stop third-party apps from accessing data on users’ friends was meant to protect user privacy.
Facebook landed on “user trust” and privacy as an explanation for why Facebook was changing its data policy.
However, these new documents show that restricting access to user data was a business decision, meant to benefit Facebook’s bottom line — not user privacy. Indeed, Facebook continued sharing users’ private data with companies that it considered business partners and valued advertisers.
The new documents provide more evidence for claims that Facebook has engaged in anti-competitive behavior. In March, Elizabeth Warren unveiled a plan to “break up big tech,” following a wave of growing sentiment that companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google constitute monopolies.
Employees, it seemed, were also wary of Facebook’s changes regarding how it treated competitors. Digesting the new direction, one employee wrote in a chat to his colleagues: “So we are literally going to group apps into buckets based on how scared we are of them and give them different APIs? … So the message is, ‘if you’re going to compete with us at all, make sure you don’t integrate with us at all’? I’m just dumbfounded.”