Editorial Image: The Canadian Press
In this archive photo dated March 29, 2018, the logo of social media giant Facebook, appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite, Times Square in New York. The British Parliament's media committee confiscated a developer's Facebook confidential documents and on Wednesday, December 5, 2018, released a series of documents that show Facebook considers charging developers for data access. (AP Photo / Richard Drew, FILE)
Facebook internal documents released by a UK parliamentary committee provide the clearest evidence that the social network has used its huge amount of user data as a competitive weapon, often in order to keep its users in the dark.
Parliament's media committee accused Facebook on Wednesday of severing special agreements with some application developers to give them more access to data while protecting others who are seen as potential rivals.
In other documents, company executives discussed how they were maintaining the collection and exploitation of user data by their users. This included the silent collection of call records and text messages from phone users that run on Google's Android operating system without asking for permission.
The UK committee released more than 200 pages of documents about the technology giant's internal discussions about the value of users' personal information. While they mostly cover the period between 2012 and 2015 – the first three years after the launch of Facebook – they offer a rare glimpse of the company's inner workings and to what extent it used people's data to make money while publicly vowing to protect their privacy .
Critics of the company said the new revelations reinforced their concerns about what users really know about how Facebook handles their data.
"This kind of scheme is exactly why companies need to spell out exactly how they are collecting and sharing our data, with rigid penalties for companies that lie about it," Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said in a statement.
Facebook called the documents misleading and said the information they contain is "just part of the story."
"As with any business, we've had a lot of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform," the company said in a statement. "But the facts are clear: we never sell data from people."
In a Facebook post, the CEO of the company, Mark Zuckerberg, sought to contextualize the documents. "Of course we do not let everyone develop on our platform," he wrote. "We have blocked many incomplete applications, nor have we allowed developers to use our platform to replicate our functionality or increase their services in a viral way, which creates little value for people on Facebook."
The UK committee seized documents from application developer Six4Three, maker of a now-defunct bikini image search application. Six4Tree acquired the files as part of a US lawsuit that accuses Facebook of misleading and anti-competitive business practices. The documents remain under US judicial seal.
In a summary of key document issues, the committee said that Facebook is "on the whitelist," or made exceptions for companies like Airbnb and Netflix, which gave them continuous access to users' friends even after the giant announced changes in 2015 to end the practice.
"Facebook has clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which means that after the platform change in 2014/15 they have maintained full access to their friends' data," the committee said in a statement. "It is not clear whether the user has consented to this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be put on the whitelist or not."
The documents "raise important questions about how Facebook handles user data, its policies to work with application developers, and how they exert their dominant position in the social media market," said commission chairman Damian Collins. "We do not feel that we have received direct responses from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents."
The cache includes emails from Zuckerberg and other key members of his team. The emails show Zuckerberg and other executives planning to leverage user data to favor companies that are not considered threats and to identify potential acquisitions.