Facebook continues to lurch from one PR crisis to another, with this week’s release of internal emails and documents by British lawmakers the latest in a series of body blows for the embattled social media giant.
Facebook frequently portrays itself as a benevolent entity, bringing the world closer together through family photos, memes, and benign back-and-forth banter between old high school friends. However, the flood of documents released Wednesday suggest it is not above wielding the vast repository of customer data at its disposal as a competitive weapon.
MP Damian Collins, chair of Britain’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, released the documents, claiming the company had failed to be forthcoming in answering questions about how it utilizes customer data
“We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents,” tweeted Collins in justifying his decision to release the 250 pages of documents.
The document dump—which covers the period between 2012 and 2015—suggests that Facebook used its access to users’ personal data to develop strategic partnerships, while also ruthlessly kneecapping any would-be competitors.
Among the revelations included in the documents is the fact that Facebook “whitelisted” preferred companies including Netflix, Lyft and Airbnb, giving them continued access both to users’ data and that of their friends, despite stating publicly that it had implemented changes limiting such access.
And, on the day Twitter launched its short-lived video service Vine, Facebook moved quickly to prevent users from finding additional friends via Facebook.
In an internal note dated Jan. 24, Facebook executive Justin Osofsky noted that as part of its NUX (new user experience), Vine users could find friends via Facebook. He suggested shutting down the app’s friends API access immediately, noting that Facebook had already prepared a PR response to its actions.
“Yup, go for it,” responded Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The documents also revealed that a 2015 permissions update for Facebook’s Android users included a “read call log” permission that would see users’ SMS and call log history continuously uploaded to Facebook.
The documents show Facebook was well aware of the seriousness of such an act. “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,” wrote Facebook’s then product developer Michael LaBeau in a note to colleagues.
“This would be a momentous decision for any company, to say nothing of one with Facebook’s privacy track record and reputation, even in 2015, of sprinting through ethical minefields,” wrote The Intercept on Wednesday.
In a blog post, Facebook said the documents had been “cherrypicked” and tell just one side of the story while omitting important context. “The documents were selectively leaked to publish some, but not all, of the internal discussions at Facebook at the time of our platform changes,” the company wrote. “[The] facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.”
“You are Facebook’s product,” said Recode in its analysis, before coming to a chilling conclusion: “What we’ve learned over the past month—from Facebook’s dealings in Washington to its relationship to oppo research firms to Wednesday’s e-mail dump—is that Facebook is a ruthless business, and your personal data keeps it alive.” – Chris Powell