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This article was published on December 5, 2018

250-page document dump is another nail in Facebook’s coffin

250-page document dump is another nail in Facebook’s coffin Image by: Anthony Quintano / Flickr

As part of its investigation of Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the British government seized a huge cache of the company’s internal documents. Despite Facebook’s best efforts, those documents are now online. And the picture they paint is not pretty.

You can peruse all of the roughly 250 pages on Parliament’s website. While the whole thing is a fascinating read, here are a few highlights:

  • Zuckerberg contemplated charging developers for user data as early as 2012, saying “…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” [sic]
  • The company whitelisted several apps, including Netflix, Airbnb, and Lyft, offering them access to information not allowed other developers
  • Zuckerberg okayed the removal of Vine’s access to the friends API, meaning users could no longer find their Facebook friends on the app; the email in which he said “Yup, go for it” is dated the same day Vine launched on iOS
  • The company deliberately buried details about how much data it would collect from Android users to avoid PR fallout

My favorite is in Exhibit 172, in which then-product manager Michael Lebeau predicts what the media fallout would be if the company didn’t bury its Android permissions:

Screenshot of the scary Android permissions screen becomes a meme (as it has in the past), propagates around the web, it gets press attention, and enterprising journalists dig into exactly what the new update is requesting, then write stories about “Facebook uses Android update to pry into your private life in ever more terrifying ways — reading your call logs, tracking you in businesses with beacons, etc.”

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The documents themselves have gone through an odd journey. A company called Six4Three created an app called Pikinis, which located Facebook users’ swimsuit photos. The app went out of business in 2015, when Facebook ostensibly cut off access to users’ friends data. Six4Three subsequently sued Facebook on the basis it allegedly planned to cut off access for some time and hadn’t warned developers. During the lawsuit, these documents were uncovered and sealed under protective order.

Ted Kramer, managing director of Six4Three then traveled to the UK with the documents in his possession (it’s not clear how he came to possess them or if he was even supposed to). Kramer was then served with orders by the Parliament’s Digital Culture, Media, and Science Committee, who demanded he hand the documents over. According to Buzzfeed News, when questioned by a California court about who could have tipped off the authorities about his arrival, Kramer named a British journalist; we’re not sure yet if that’s true.

Now Damian Collins, the Chairman of the Committee has released the entire cache of documents to the public, saying in a tweet:

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.

Facebook has responded to the leak by claiming the documents do not give the full story. According to Motherboard reporter Joseph Cox, a Facebook spokesperson responded with, “As we’ve said many times, 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.”

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