Leaked emails show how Facebook wielded its control over user data to hobble rivals like YouTube, Twitter, and Amazon
- Facebook employees regularly discussed how to make special exceptions to the company's policies on data-sharing in order to hobble its competitors like Youtube, Amazon, Twitter, and Pinterest, leaked documents show.
- Thousands of pages of confidential emails, messages, and documents from inside Facebook were made public Tuesday, shining unprecedented light on how the tech giant operates.
- Facebook had set general policies on how other apps could access data like peoples' emails and friends lists. But internal emails show Facebook employees wanted to restrict competitors' data access, even when those use cases were already approved.
- The leaked documents surfaced at a time when Facebook's current and past behaviour is under intense scrutiny amid US antitrust investigations and accusations it engaged in anti-competitive conduct.
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High-ranking Facebook employees strategised about how to use Facebook's vast control of user data in order to hobble specific companies it viewed as threats, according to internal messages that leaked Wednesday.
User data is a valuable currency for tech companies and sits at the heart of Facebook's business model. While it does not sell user data, Facebook shares some user data with other apps when people connect their Facebook account to those apps - for instance, apps that let users log in with Facebook can typically see users' email addresses and friends lists, allowing them to connect with their Facebook friends on the third-party app.
But on multiple occasions in the early 2010s, Facebook employees discussed plans to selectively restrict access to that valuable data for apps making competing products, like Twitter, Amazon, Pinterest, and YouTube - even in cases when those apps had already been approved to access Facebook user data.
Reached for comment by Business Insider, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement: "These old documents have been taken out of context by someone with an agenda against Facebook, and have been distributed publicly with a total disregard for US law."
The leaked messages show how Facebook explored selectively blacklisting certain apps, using its dominance in the sphere of social media to stymie competitors' growth. This practice was the subject of an NBC News report published in April 2019, and the newly-leaked messages provide more details.
In one leaked email from June 2013, Facebook employee Jackie Chang describes a decision to restrict Amazon's access to Facebook user data because Amazon's wishlist was seen as a competitor to the Facebook Gifts app.
"Platform will be pushing a functional change ... which will limit Amazon's ability to read friend data (including birthdays) to only friends connected to that App. This should significantly stymie Amazon's ability to grow the gifting app beyond users immediately connected," Chang wrote.
Another leaked exchange from October 2011 shows high-ranking employees planning to blacklist Twitter from seeing users' friends lists, a measure that Facebook already enacted for YouTube. The conversation took place at a time when Facebook was aware it had leverage over Twitter, according to Computer Weekly - Twitter links represented 1% of outbound traffic on Facebook, while Facebook links made up 33% of outbound traffic on Twitter.
"Can you check to make sure we restrict the Twitter API to block out friend lists?" one employee wrote.
"Youtube is not allowed to see users that don't already use the app, so a friend list would be returned, but it would be only friends that are already Youtube users. This was never enabled for Twitter," another employee responded.
Users' privacy appears to be an afterthought in these exchanges, but Facebook employees regularly referred to user trust as the public-facing reason the company would give for restricting what data it shares. In one instance, Facebook decided to increase the data it shared with Apple due to a special agreement, and an employee worried that people would be skeptical of Facebook's messaging on user trust.
"My concern is around the perception that we can't hold our story together. We're going all-in on the user trust message as our reasoning for doing the v4 shakeup and it'd be sad [journalists] clearly pointed out that there was an easy and obvious workaround on iOS," the employee wrote.
Facebook is the subject of a sweeping US antitrust investigation based on allegations that it engaged in anti-competitive conduct.
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