UK lawmaker accuses Facebook of offering special access to user data for certain apps

Facebook gave companies like Netflix and Lyft special access to certain user data after the social network had restricted third parties’ ability to retrieve the information, a British lawmaker alleged on Wednesday.

Damian Collins, a member of the U.K. Parliament who heads a committee on social media, released a trove of documents that he had seized from a company suing Facebook in California. Collins said the documents appear to show that Facebook entered into “whitelisting agreements” with companies without the consent of its users.

“Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data,” Collins wrote in a note attached to the document dump. “It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Facebook has maintained that the lawsuit from the app developer Six4Three is baseless and that the documents, which are under court seal in California, paint an inaccurate picture of how the company operates.

“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,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

“We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends' data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we've never sold people’s data.”

Facebook has been under intense scrutiny for its handling of user data. Last week, Collins and lawmakers from eight countries around the world grilled Facebook's top U.K. lobbyist about its handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal after Parliament had taken the extraordinary step of seizing the sealed documents from Six4Three.

The members of Parliament on the select committee had viewed the documents and revealed during the hearing that they showed a Facebook engineer had discovered that fake Russian accounts were siphoning 3 billion data points a day from the platform.

Prior to those changes in 2015, companies could gain access to information on users' friends who had not consented to having their data collected. Earlier this year, it was revealed that this feature allowed Cambridge Analytica to improperly obtain data on millions of users, which had been collected by an academic researcher through a third-party app on Facebook's platform.

Six4Three, a controversial company that developed an app allowing users to find bikini pictures posted by their friends, sued Facebook in 2015 after the social network restricted access to the user data.

According to the 250 pages of documents that were released Wednesday, some very prominent companies were given access to friends' data well after the changes in 2015 closed off that information to developers.

Emails included in the trove appear to show that Facebook entered into whitelisting agreements with companies including Netflix, Lyft, Airbnb and Bumble.

Collins also highlighted emails from Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergMerkel named Harvard commencement speaker The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Congress to act soon to avoid shutdown Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg denies selling 'anyone's data' | UK Parliament releases more Facebook docs | Canada reportedly arrests Huawei CFO | Fallout from Marriott hack | Cuba rolls out internet service for mobile users MORE in which the Facebook CEO floated the idea of allowing app developers access to certain data if they bought ads on the platform.

"[I]f 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," Zuckerberg wrote in an email from October 2012. "The basic idea is that any other revenue you generate for us earns you a credit towards whatever fees you own us for using [platform]. For most developers this would probably cover cost completely. So instead of every paying us directly, they’d just use our payments or ads products."

Zuckerberg responded to the document dump in a blog on Wednesday, saying that the company ultimately decided against that idea and others that were discussed in the emails.
 
He wrote that the company shut down access to friends data for developers in order to crack down on "sketchy" apps.
 
"We restricted a number of these apps, and for others we asked developers to provide easy ways for people to share their content outside of their apps and to Facebook if they wanted," Zuckerberg wrote.
 
"We've focused on preventing abusive apps for years, and that was the main purpose of this major platform change starting in 2014. In fact, this was the change required to prevent the situation with Cambridge Analytica."

--Updated at 1:31 p.m.