Facebook responds to the publishing of confidential emails by UK lawmakers

6 Dec 2018

Image: © Paul Daniels/Stock.adobe.com

The UK parliament has released a trove of internal documents from inside Facebook that the company tried to keep secret.

On top of a litany of scandals in the past few weeks alone, Facebook now has to deal with the aftermath of internal emails exposing some of its inner workings. In the documents, details of how the firm responds to competitors, its business model and market power were unveiled.

The emails were obtained from the CEO of Six4Three, a software company suing Facebook, and were made public by the digital, culture, media and sport committee in the UK as part of its probe into online misinformation.

Several key issues

Chair of the committee, Damian Collins, noted several key issues. According to the documents, Facebook was aware that an update to its Android app that let it collect call and text data from users would be controversial. He said: “To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard as possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features.”

While apps were invited to use Facebook’s network, certain competitors were forbidden from using certain tools. In 2013, Twitter launched the Vine video-sharing service, which used Facebook’s Find Friends tools to let users connect to people. Emails showed an engineer recommended cutting Vine’s access to Facebook data, which Zuckerberg approved.

In other emails, companies can be seen asking Facebook to restore data privileges. “We have been compelled to write to you to explain the hugely detrimental effect that removing friend permissions will cause to our hugely popular (and profitable) applications Badoo and Hot or Not,” one Badoo rep wrote.

Facebook later responded saying this particular app had been “whitelisted” but others were not as lucky.

Lawmakers call on FTC

Critics of the company say these actions could violate federal monopoly law in the US. Enforcement action in this case would come from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Senator Richard Blumenthal said: “These new documents show clearly that Facebook failed to heed their consent decree agreement and basic standards of privacy. The FTC must act decisively and vigorously to end this consistent pattern of negligence and disregard for consumer privacy and legal orders.”

UK lawmaker Claude Moraes told Bloomberg that members of parliament there would not hesitate to wield “a big stick” to enforce competition and taxation rules. He added: “We have repeatedly raised concerns about the manipulation of online data and have made clear that competition law is crucial.”

Facebook responds

In a personal statement, Zuckerberg himself responded to the information laid out in the dossier. “I understand there is a lot of scrutiny on how we run our systems. That’s healthy given the vast number of people who use our services around the world, and it is right that we are constantly asked to explain what we do.

“But it’s also important that the coverage of what we do – including the explanation of these internal documents – doesn’t misrepresent our actions or motives.”

A Facebook spokesperson separately said the documents “are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context”.

They added: “The documents were selectively leaked to publish some, but not all, of the internal discussions at Facebook at the time of our platform changes. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects