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Top 10 investigative stories of 2019

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 investigative stories of 2019

Calls for regulation of Facebook in the US, Europe and the UK reached new heights in 2019, as the Federal Trade Commission, the US Attorney General and the Department of Justice began anti-trust investigations into the company, with similar enquiries expected to follow from the European Commission and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.

Computer Weekly, together with NBC and 30 international media partners, reported on thousands of confidential leaked internal documents that raised serious questions about Facebook’s treatment of rival companies, independent app developers and its approach to users’ privacy.

1. Facebook planned to spy on Android phone users, internal emails reveal

Facebook project teams developed technology to allow the company to track the location of its customers from their mobile phones.

Documents seen by Computer Weekly also revealed plans by Facebook to pass data on “single” Facebook users to companies selling dating services and organisations that wanted to target them with “political” advertisements.

The documents, marked “confidential”, revealed a secret programme by Facebook’s “growth team” to collect and exploit data from customers with Android mobile phones.

Their disclosure came only a week after a critical report by a UK parliamentary committee investigating disinformation and fake news called for an independent regulator to oversee Facebook and other social media companies.

2. Facebook leaks: Zuckerberg turned data into dollars in ruthless battle with competitors

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg led discussions with his senior executives about selling customers’ data to software developers as the company sought to undermine competitors and consolidate its power.

About 7,000 pages of confidential documents showed that Zuckerberg and his top executives had considered a wide range of options to charge app developers for access to Facebook’s user data in an attempt to boost revenues after issuing shares to the public.

Facebook has consistently given assurances that it will never sell its customers’ data, but internal emails, message logs and PowerPoint presentations show that the company equated its user data to dollars.

3. Facebook asked George Osborne to influence EU data protection law

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg invited one of the children of then UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne to Facebook’s office as part of a intensive lobbying programme to influence European data protection legislation.

Sandberg asked Osborne to be “even more active and vocal” in his concerns about European data protection legislation, and to “really help shape the proposals”, during a lobbying campaign to influence EU policy.

Facebook mobilised its staff for a huge lobbying campaign in Davos, holding private discussions with policy-makers over Europe’s plans to tighten data protection rules, according to the documents. Executives felt they faced an uphill battle to ensure Europe adopted a single data protection standard that was “not overly prescriptive”.

4. Facebook takes extraordinary legal steps to contain document leak

Facebook is taking extraordinary legal measures in an attempt to contain further leaks of highly confidential internal documents provided to a US court that have come into the possession of international media organisations, including Computer Weekly.

On 11 April, Facebook lodged urgent ex parte (one-sided) applications to a California court, asking for orders that two suspected leakers from US tech company Six4Three be questioned for two hours in court, if required, or face jail.

The latest request was prompted when one of the international media groups working with Computer Weekly on the document cache approached Facebook for comment on planned stories derived from the documents.

5. Facebook’s privacy game – how Zuckerberg backtracked on promises to protect personal data

Facebook promised its users privacy, then quietly abandoned its promises in pursuit of profits. Now it faces antitrust regulation.

In this exclusive investigation, Computer Weekly presents 22 occasions when Facebook has exploited users’ private data and disregarded privacy, drawing together leaked documents, academic research and newspaper reports.

6. Lawmakers study leaked Facebook documents made public

Congressional lawmakers are analysing thousands of pages of leaked Facebook documents, published by Computer Weekly and NBC, containing high-level internal conversations between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the technology firm’s most senior staff, as antitrust investigations against Facebook heat up.

7. How Facebook’s ‘Switcheroo’ plan concealed scheme to kill popular apps

A congressional committee investigating anti-competitive behaviour in digital technology has been provided with key documents that show how Facebook used its dominant position to shut down or damage app developers it considered to be rivals. 

They show how Facebook executives created blacklists to prevent competitors from accessing Facebook’s data, and closed down applications even though they were not breaching Facebook’s policies.

App developers were forced out of business after Facebook incorporated similar functions into its own platform and threatened to steal data from rivals using “hacky scrapers” if they refused to share data about their users with Facebook.

In one of the most extreme examples, Facebook proposed that developers would lose access to its valuable data feeds unless they spent at least £250,000 a year advertising their apps on Facebook’s mobile advertising platform.

8. Facebook undermined rivals in bid to dominate global messaging

Facebook used buyouts and bullying tactics towards competitors to grow its business empire, documents leaked to Computer Weekly reveal.

Facebook’s staff saw the social network as “the biggest service on Earth” and Messenger was a key, yet vulnerable, part of the business. But despite Facebook’s popularity, its messaging service was losing out to competitors that focused solely on messaging.

Confidential documents, published by Computer Weekly and NBC, are likely to raise questions for lawmakers and regulators, as they reveal that Facebook walked over developers who had helped make Facebook a success.

9. Facebook co-founder: ‘It is time to break up Facebook’

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is calling for the US government to take anti-trust action against Facebook, separating it into multiple companies.

Hughes joins a growing number of privacy activists, politicians and regulators calling for anti-trust action against Facebook, including senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has also pledged to break up Amazon and Google as well, if elected in 2020.

“When it hasn’t acquired its way to dominance, Facebook has used its monopoly position to shut out competing companies or has copied their technology,” wrote Hughes in an op-ed published in the New York Times.

10. Competition watchdog considering regulating big tech

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is considering a range of potential interventions against Google and Facebook over growing concerns that the duo’s dominance in digital advertising is negatively affecting consumers and businesses.

In its interim report, published on 18 December, the CMA found that Google accounted for more than 90% of all revenues earned from search advertising in the UK at around £6bn, while Facebook accounted for almost half of all display advertising revenues in the UK, surpassing the £2bn mark.

“We have found that the profitability of both Google and Facebook has been well above any reasonable estimate of what we would expect in a competitive market for many years,” said the report.

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission is seeking an injunction to bar Facebook from further integrating its apps, including WhatsApp and Instagram, which federal regulators might want to unwind as part of a future breakup.

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