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Facebook exploited user data as bargaining chip, leaked documents reveal

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NBC News has released a trove of Facebook documents which paint an unflattering picture of a social media giant seeking to control the market, using personal user data as leverage.

The 7,000 documents are mostly from 2011 to 2015 and include internal emails, presentations, spreadsheets, notes and 1,200 “highly confidential” pages. The documents were originally acquired amid a legal case raised by Six4Three – which offered an app, Pikinis, allowing users to search for bikini photos uploaded by their Facebook contacts – against Facebook in 2014.

In 2018, British MP Damian Collins, chair of the Parliamentary digital, culture, media and sport committee, seized the documents from Six4Three’s founder through an obscure parliamentary procedure. Reports about the contents of the documents began to circulate in December 2018.

NBC News acquired the documents in April this year and have now released them in full to the public.

The documents include details of how Facebook’s executive team, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, positioned user data such as photos and relationship information as a bargaining chip, such as by offering generous access to user data to some partners while restricting other partners’ access to this data.

Companies like Amazon, which spent considerable sums on Facebook advertising, would be given special access to data. In one email, a Facebook employee discussed punishing app developers which did not spend “at least $250K a year to maintain access to the data”. Six4Three sued Facebook after its access to user data was restricted, with the company claiming that this ruined its work on the Pikinis app.

Companies may also fall out of favour and see their data access restricted if they were perceived as a threat to Facebook, such as free messaging app MessageMe. In its report, NBC News identified that Facebook planned to spin these decisions to limit competitor’s data access as being motivated by concerns about data protection.

Facebook has not disputed the authenticity of the documents, although representatives have characterised them as “cherry-picked” and have not justified the privileged access to data granted to some of Facebook’s partners.

Paul Grewal, Facebook’s general counsel, commented: “As we’ve said many times, Six4Tthree – creators of the Pikinis app – cherry-picked these documents from years ago as part of a lawsuit to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users. The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context. We will stand by the platform changes we made in 2014-15 to prevent people from sharing their friends’ information with developers like the creators of Pikinis.”

Facebook has accused Six4Three of “orchestrating one of the largest and most damaging violations of a protective order in history”.

Following the publication of the documents, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter that: “What we need is vigorous antitrust action and to break Facebook up.” Sanders and fellow progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren are among the most high-profile voices in US politics calling for the break-up of the largest tech giants.

Facebook is currently being investigated by a coalition of 47 attorneys-general over allegations of anticompetitive practices. It is also faces antitrust investigations by the House of Representatives’ antitrust committee, and a partnership between the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice.

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