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Congressional lawmakers are analysing thousands of pages of leaked Facebook documents, containing high-level internal conversations between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the technology firm’s most senior staff, as antitrust investigations against Facebook heat up.
The cache of confidential internal documents reveals how Facebook encouraged hundreds of thousands of app developers to build mobile applications on its platform before putting pressure on them to buy advertising or hand over data about their users to Facebook.
Computer Weekly has today published all the documents to allow further public interest scrutiny by regulators, academics and journalists of Facebook and its policies towards competing companies (links to all documents are available here).
Journalist Duncan Campbell shared the documents with congressman David Cicilline, chairman of the US Congress House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, after Facebook ignored a request, first reported by AP, from the committee to provide them.
The move comes as regulators in the US and Europe grapple with how to regulate big tech companies, including Facebook and Google, that offer free services. Competition laws were designed in a pre-internet era to regulate companies that offered goods and services for profit.
The documents have been placed under seal in a Californian court as part of a legal action brought by Six4Three, a now-defunct application developer that claims Facebook forced it, and other app developers, out of business by cutting off their access to users’ data.
The cache of about 7,000 pages of confidential internal documents reveals how Facebook encouraged hundreds of thousands of app developers to build mobile applications on its platform before deciding to remove their access to data.
Initially, Zuckerberg promised developers that they would be able to operate on a level playing field with Facebook, before quietly removing their access to mission-critical application programming interfaces (APIs) – a plan dubbed the Switcheroo – once the company had grown its user base, the documents reveal.
The Six4Three documents, which were obtained by investigative journalist Campbell and shared with Computer Weekly, NBC News and other news organisations, raise new questions about Facebook’s behaviour and the effectiveness of existing antitrust laws.
Campbell said on Twitter: “I am putting the full leaked documents into the public domain so that regulators, litigants can have fullest possible information. Last week, I arranged for copies to go to US Congress, to help the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law.”
New York State attorney general Letitia James is leading a bipartisan investigation with 46 other state attorneys general. She said the attorneys general were concerned that “Facebook may have put consumer data at risk, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices and increased the price of advertising”, and that they would leave no stone unturned.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law began a bipartisan investigation into digital markets in June 2019, which will assess the adequacy of existing antitrust and enforcement.
Chair of the subcommittee, Democratic congressman David Cicilline, will be attending the third meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ in Dublin on 7 November.
The committee will again be attended by parliamentarians from around the world, who discussed whether privacy should play a more central role in competition law when they last met in June.
Despite extending formal invitations to chief executives of the world’s largest technology firms, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, none of them decided to attend the second meeting.
Cicilline and Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr are expected to refer to the Six4Three documents during the committee meeting.
Read our in-depth analysis of the Facebook files
Click here to read our in-depth and detailed analysis of the leaked Facebook documents, which reveal how Facebook used and abused app developers, cut off data to competitors, gave privileged access to its friends and used privacy as a cover story.
The documents are part of a long-running US lawsuit against Facebook by developer Six4Three, which accuses the social media giant of using its platform as a weapon to gain leverage over competitors, and of acting with “fraud, malice and oppression”.
Six4Three’s lawsuit alleges that Facebook made threats to shut down developers’ access to data unless, for example, they sold their companies to Facebook for a price under their market value, spent large amounts advertising with Facebook, or agreed to feed all of their data back to the company.
An amended complaint, submitted by Six4Three to the Superior Court of California in San Mateo on 30 October 2015, claims the developer had “expended approximately $1.15m in capital and uncompensated labour by its executives in developing and marketing the app”, having relied on Facebook’s representations being accurate.
Facebook has denied Six4Three’s allegations, claiming the social networking company “did not make any such promises to [the] plaintiff, and the law imposes no such obligations on Facebook”.
“Facebook’s Platform terms, which all developers must agree to when registering for Facebook, make clear that Facebook may update its APIs from time to time and that Facebook will provide reasonable notice (90 days) when an update might make an app or feature inoperable (a so-called ‘breaking change’),” it said in court filings.
What do the documents reveal?
How Facebook’s ‘Switcheroo’ plan concealed scheme to kill popular apps
The leaked documents, published by Computer Weekly, reveal how Facebook used and abused app developers, cut off data to competitors, gave privileged access to its friends, and used privacy as a cover story to hide its true intentions.
Facebook’s lobbying campaign against data protection
Facebook lobbied against stricter data protection regulations around the world, including in the UK, Canada and Ireland.
Facebook lobbied political leaders at Davos over the European Data Protection Directive, which would eventually become the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, had private chats with then-chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne and Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner responsible for the EU’s proposed privacy laws, and asked Irish prime minster Enda Kenny to use his influence during Ireland’s presidency of the European Union to influence data protection laws.
Spying on Android users
Internal emails reveal that Facebook planned to use its Android app to match users’ location data with mobile-phone basestation IDs to deliver “location-aware” products without users’ consent. Facebook also wanted to use its Android app to gain competitive intelligence about rival firms.
Data for dollars
Facebook’s executives, led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, devised plans to turn Facebook users’ private data into dollars.
Internal documents show how Facebook succeeded in boosting its revenues by turning itself into an “information bank”, cutting off some developers’ access to the data while offering others preferential deals if they shared their users’ data with Facebook, and putting pressure on developers to buy advertising.
User privacy an afterthought
Computer Weekly charts 22 times where Facebook back-tracked on promises to protect its users’ privacy.
When privacy is mentioned in the Six4Three documents, it is either as an afterthought or as a public relations spin to justify commercially driven decisions that developers or competitors might find unpalatable.
Some of the sealed documents had previously been legally obtained by the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee in November 2018 as part of its investigation into ‘fake news’.
The committee required Ted Kramer, managing director of Six4Three, to hand over sealed legal documents that had been disclosed to the court during his company’s lawsuit against Facebook.
On the day of the report’s publication, Campbell, who has written for Computer Weekly, was anonymously provided with the 7,000-page cache of Facebook documents.
Campbell shared the documents with Computer Weekly, The Observer, NBC and other news organisations.
Facebook attempted on 11 April to contain the leak by lodging urgent ex-parte applications to the court.
Facebook requested that the court order Kramer and his legal advisor to submit to immediate questioning so that Facebook could determine how the documents were obtained by journalists.
In response to repeated requests for comment by Computer Weekly and others since February, Facebook has maintained that Six4Three “cherry-picked” documents to support its lawsuit.
- Declaration by David Godkin producing 212 sealed exhibits – 16 May 2018.
- Declaration by David Godkin with 218 exhibits – 17 May 2018.
- Memorandum of points and authorities by David Godkin (with highlights) – 20 May 2018.
- Notes and summaries of Facebook discovered documents (with multiple colour highlights) – undated.