Facebook Inc allowed some companies [ad customers] including Lyft, Badoo, and Netflix, to access users’ friend's list after removing the data from most other apps in 2015, according to 223 pages of confidential Facebook emails released on Wednesday by a British lawmaker investigating social media and fake news.
The confidential emails between 2012 and 2015 among top officials, including Facebook CEO, provide new evidence of previous claims that the company is engaged in anti-competition behaviors. The documents show that Facebook followed up competitors’ growth and blocked them from accessing the user data available to others.
A British parliamentarian, Damian Collins made the internal documents public on Wednesday with a summary of his findings and other important details. The emails were obtained by Six4Three as part of its ongoing lawsuit against Facebook. Though the documents are under seal in a California Court, Six4Three founder released them to Collins and British law enforcement under threats of imprisonment while he was in the UK on other business.
What Facebook Whitelisting agreements revealed
In 2015, Facebook amended its privacy policies and prevented third-party developers from accessing the friend's list of users. But the social media giant went into whitelisting agreements with some ad customers to grant them full access to “user’s friends’ data” despite restricting it in the new policy, Collins said. “It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.”
According to the emails, whitelisted companies include Badoo [dating app], Airbnb, Lyft and Netflix. An approval system was leveraged by Facebook in deciding the companies to be whitelisted, and sometimes (at least once) Facebook used the company’s advertising spend in its platform to evaluate if it merits the whitelist or not.
The documents also revealed a communication between senior exec Justin Osofsky and Mark Zuckerberg in 2013, in which they discussed blocking Vine from accessing the friends’ list the day rival Twitter launched the video sharing service. Facebook also considered charging other companies for access to the friend’s lists and other developer tools, if they are not able to buy a certain amount of advertising from the platform.
Responses so far
"Only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context," a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday.
In a Wednesday blog post, Facebook did not deny the allegation but clarified that friend lists and friends’ data are different. “We changed our platform policies in 2014/15 to prevent apps from requesting permission to access friends' private information.” This affected most developers who they limited their ability to request user’s friend's list but in a few cases, “when necessary, we allowed developers to access a list of the users' friends.”
Facebook categorically stated that “this was not friends' private information but a list of your friends,” which includes name and profile picture only.
Whitelisting is a common way of “testing new features and functionality with a limited set of partners before rolling out the feature more broadly” Facebook said.
Facebook could arguably face new regulatory scrutiny into its business practices following the new insight. Stifel analysts lowered its rating on Facebook shares on Wednesday, noting that “political and regulatory blowback” could over time impose restrictions on Facebook operations.
None of the whitelisted companies have responded to request for comments as of the time of this writing.
However, Facebook has firmly defended its practices, saying that the released emails were “selectively leaked.”